Pollution, smoke or exhaust, needs to be cleaned up because it’s harming our health. Lungs don’t recover from smoke as readily as we’d like. Chronic health problems can arise from long-term pollution smoke exposure.
Smoke is one of the oldest manmade forms of air pollution, dating back to prehistoric times. Ancient man made smoke by cooking with fire, and by setting fire to prairies to drive game into cul de sacs where it could be killed easily. More smoke pollution was made smelting metals during the Bronze and Iron Ages. Of course, the Industrial Age brought even more smoke pollution as factories sprang up everywhere. Smoke pollution is Man’s visible signature on the air.
Smoke pollution was long considered just a nuisance, not a health hazard. Like germs before the time of Louis Pasteur, the effects of the tiny particles that make up smoke pollution went undetected for millennia. Lung diseases caused by smoke pollution were attributed to “bad” air of an unspecified nature, evil spirits, or constitutional defects. But the health effects of smoke pollution have been better studied in the 20th Century, and they are worse than originally imagined.
Smoke pollution from vehicles is a well-known air pollutant, accounting for 60 percent of all air pollution in the U. S. But wood smoke from homes and neighborhood burnings is a growing problem, accounting for an estimated 10 percent of all air pollution. Wood smoke is much more visible and more easily smelled than vehicle emissions. Like vehicle emissions, wood smoke pollution has many components.
Wood smoke pollution consists of particulate matter, carbon monoxide, organic gases containing carbon, and nitrogen oxides. Many of the organic gases found in wood smoke pollution are known to cause cancer, i. e., benzopyrenes, dibenzanthracenes, and dibenzocarbazoles. Other toxic compounds found in wood smoke pollution include aldehydes, phenols, and cresols.
Many wood smoke particles are so small that they are inhaled deeply into the lungs, where they may remain for years. They cause structural damage as well as chemical changes. Cancer-causing and other toxic chemicals often enter the lungs by adhering to inhaled particles.
Wood smoke pollution causes decreased lung function — the ability of the lungs to move fresh air in and exhausted air out of the lungs is lessened. One must breathe more often and with greater effort to obtain the same supply of oxygen. Wood smoke pollution exacerbates existing lung diseases such as emphysema, asthma, bronchitis, and Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD). Wood smoke pollution also irritates the eyes, nose, and throat. Long-term exposure may lead to emphysema, chronic bronchitis, arteriosclerosis, and nasal, throat, lung, blood, and lymph system cancers.
The growing popularity of eco-conscious wood stove heating and cooking is the main reason for wood smoke pollution’s increase. No matter how well designed or ventilated, wood-burning stoves allow wood smoke pollution to enter the home as well as the outdoor environment through chimneys. Even if your home does not use a wood-burning stove, it may be contaminated by such stoves used in neighboring homes.
Outdoor burning in neighborhoods also contributes to wood smoke pollution, particularly during warm weather when people are barbecuing, clearing brush from property, and burning brush and trash outdoors. Alternatives to such outdoor burning include mulching, composting, and recycling.
Wood smoke pollution is a small part of overall air pollution, but it is growing. Ironically, wood smoke pollution is a byproduct of the conservation movement. Wood smoke pollution must be brought under control before it gets out of hand. Regardless of the source, pollution — smoke, exhaust, or whatever — is harmful to your health.