Air pollution: A problem without borders

After school one day, as I ran with my cross country team, I ran through smoke coming from someone’s backyard bonfire. I took a gulp of what I expected to be the relatively clean, fresh air I had been breathing throughout my run; instead, I gagged on bonfire smoke. As I ran clear of the smoky haze swirling across the sidewalk in the breeze, I was desperately gasping for clean air.

As I prepare to visit China, I worry about its air pollution. I will not run in China, but I cannot help thinking how terrible it would be to live in a place where every breath is unhealthy.

My breaths were unhealthy in one neighborhood because of one person’s bonfire – part of his footprint in our community and our world. The air quality in the Twin Cities is good compared to that in many places around the globe, but does this type of comparison lead to a false sense of security? “It’s good enough” or “at least our air is cleaner than theirs” has become the widely accepted standard of measuring the impact we make on the environment every day.

One of the main reasons for the harmfulness of breathing in wood smoke is the content of the smoke: toxic chemicals and fine particles.

According to the Washington State Department of Ecology, most wood smoke particles are less than 2.5 microns wide; the period at the end of this sentence is approximately 500 microns wide. These extremely small particles can slip past the respiratory system’s defense mechanisms and settle in the alveoli, tiny sacs at the bottom of the lungs where oxygen enters the bloodstream. The smoke particles stay there for months, causing chemical changes and damage in the lungs.

While wood smoke particles are tiny enough to evade the filters of the human respiratory system, they are also small enough to seep through closed doors and windows, increasing the hazards of urban bonfires: the smoke from a fire in one person’s yard is harmful to neighbors inside their own houses, according to the Washington State Department of Ecology.

The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) notes that fine particles can trigger asthma attacks, bronchitis, lung cancer, and heart attacks, especially in people susceptible to these health problems.

According to the MPCA, wood smoke also contains chemicals; many of these are toxic chemicals also found in tobacco smoke. Tars, soot, gases, and carbon monoxide are just a few of these harmful substances.

Wood smoke also contains mutagens, which cause cell mutations like genetic defects and chromosome damage, as stated by the Washington State Department of Ecology. Not all of these mutagens cause cancer, but carcinogens can enter the lungs by binding to the tiny particles in wood smoke.

Despite the extreme health issues associated with wood smoke, recreational burning has increased: it made up 3% of all wood burned in Minnesota in 2002-03, but jumped to 32% in 2011-12, according to the MPCA. This dramatic increase is attributed mostly to the rise in the use of outdoor recreational equipment such as fire pits and fire rings. An MPCA survey found that in the Twin Cities metro area, 91% of people who burned wood did so for pleasure; statewide, that number was 83%.

With the increase in recreational wood-burning in Minnesota, what are agencies doing to help? The MPCA encourages the use of a moisture meter, a tool that measures the percent of moisture in wood – the less moisture, the less smoke, so burning is only advisable when the wood’s moisture content is 20% or less. Educating people about the detriments of wood smoke and how to lessen their air pollution footprint will also alleviate the wood smoke problem; in this way, as Robert Moffitt of the American Lung Association points out on, wood smoke education  is similar to that for tobacco smoke. Educating people on the damages done by tobacco smoke was a long process that culminated in indoor smoking ordinances, and education about wood smoke may lead to a similarly triumphant result.

Twin Citians have a false sense of security because our air is less polluted than other metro areas, but opening a window on a summer night or running through an urban neighborhood brings the realization that we have a smoky problem. Maintaining the status quo won’t improve our air quality.

As the population of the Twin Cities continues to grow, so do the number of individual woodsmoke footprints.

How China can correct their out-of-control air pollution remains to be seen. When I travel to China this March, I hope to learn how individual Chinese citizens and large corporations are actively engaged in finding solutions to air pollution.

In America, citizens can demand that elected officials pass laws to prevent harmful air pollution. Unfortunately for China, its citizens are not allowed to vote officials out of office if they do not respond to the demands of the people.

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