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Letter: We must clean up our wood burning

| January 28, 2009 11:00 PM

Dear Editor:

I appreciate articles about smoky air and about asbestos risks and cleanup efforts.

Asbestosis and lung cancer are terrible diseases, and severe chronic bronchitis, asthma and emphysema are terrible diseases. Some of these diseases are caused by airborne particles or gases from burning, and all are aggravated by such pollution. In addition, allergic upper respiratory illnesses are severely aggravated by smoke and pollen in the air.

I worked for several years as an emergency room physician in Aberdeen, Wash. Aberdeen is a logging and mill town, and it also has many woodstoves for home and shop heating. Aberdeen has thermal inversions and a lack of wind, much like Libby.

Seasonal slash burns, forest fires and inversions in cold weather filled our emergency rooms. Many of the patients were hospitalized or referred to family physicians or specialists. These people were miserable, and many were threatened. The financial cost was immense to patients for lost work and bills, and to insurance companies and to other payers including social security and employers.

Smoke in the air is often complex. A forest fire or slash burn heats air. The heated air and smoke rise rapidly, and new air is pulled across the forest floor, into the fire, and up with the smoke. Pollen, plant particles and other dust are mixed with the smoke.

The allergic conditions of asthma, sinusitis and “hay fever” can be activated by the forest floor allergens, which rise with the smoke. Other particles and gases from those fires and from wood-burning stoves can severely aggravate these conditions and also asbestosis, emphysema, lung cancer, bronchitis and severe heart disease.

We must clean up our wood burning. If the wood is dry, free of bark and split, it can be burned quite cleanly in an adequate stove, properly adjusted. Our county air quality people will be warning people about their smoking chimneys. All of us can look at our chimney smoke and try to make it nearly invisible, as is required.

I encourage everyone using an old fireplace or old wood-burning stove to get it checked out and replaced if necessary. Such efforts will save much firewood, clean up air and avoid those wood-burning bans during cold weather.

Dr. John R. Wilcox