South Sound already has experienced two burn bans in December, including one that stretched over Christmas weekend.
When cold, stagnant air settles over the region, air pollution from wood stoves, outdoor burning and vehicle exhaust is trapped near the ground, exposing everyone to unhealthy air.
The best way to keep air quality from getting worse is to prohibit the use of wood burning indoors and outdoors, the main source of air pollution in the wintertime in South Sound. It also helps to reduce vehicle driving when the air is stagnant.
The burn bans are invoked by the Olympic Region Clean Air Agency, which relies on air pollution standards issued by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Air quality officials don’t take the issuance of a burn ban lightly, They know it can be an inconvenience, even an economic hardship, to those who prefer wood heat to their aging electric furnace or baseboard electric heat.
But the scientific evidence is overwhelming. The fine particles found in wood smoke pose a health hazard in the environment, especially for the elderly, infants and people with heart or lung disease.
The new models of certified wood stoves do a much better job of reducing emissions. However, there are many noncertified wood stoves and fireplace inserts in operation in South Sound.
The culprits are microscopic particles found in smoke and haze. The tiny particles of pollution can lodge in lungs and the bloodstream, triggering a host of health complications.
Long-term exposure to at-risk populations can lead to reduced lung function, chronic bronchitis and premature death.
Short-term exposure can trigger asthma attacks, acute bronchitis and heart attacks.
Studies also show that elevated pollution levels from fine particles are linked to increased emergency room visits and hospital admissions.
Even healthy children and adults can experience temporary symptoms during episodes of air pollution from airborne particles, including irritation of the eyes, nose and throat, tightness in the chest, shortness of breath and coughing.
So it is essential that everyone in the community abide by the burn bans when they are in place.
Unfortunately, compliance with the latest burn ban appeared less thorough than the early December event.
A drive through any neighborhood revealed chimneys belching out smoke from fireplaces and wood stoves. Even more egregious, outdoor burning was still taking place in unincorporated areas of the county where it is still allowed under regular weather conditions at certain times of the year.
Some of the offenders might not have heard about the latest burn ban, which was broadcast on television and radio, reported in the newspapers and posted online by ORCAA at www. orcaa.org.
Others might have fudged a little bit, After all, isn’t a yule log fire part of the Christmas tradition?
Still others were burning fires in their wood and pellet stoves because it is their only adequate source of heat, which is allowed during a burn ban.
But there’s no excuse for someone to ignore the burn ban if they have a backup source of heat in their home.
The burn bans are mostly voluntary. ORCAA doesn’t have the resources to canvass its six-county region, looking for offenders. However, they did spot checks of the community, sending letters of notice to some addresses where smoke was seen coming from chimneys. And repeat offenders could be subjected to a small monetary fine.
It’s important to get in the habit of obeying burn bans: Public health is compromised when burn bans are ignored.
The two December burn bans — each lasting a few days — probably won’t be the last ones this heating season.
During El Nino winters such as this one, stagnant weather patterns are more common. In addition, EPA in 2006 set a more restrictive standard for the allowable concentration of small particles, which are 2.5 micrometers in diameter or less, This means it takes less pollution to trigger a burn ban than it did before the revision.
Do your family and neighbors a favor — honor the burn bans.