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Air Quality: Where there’s Smoke, there’s Pollution

By Bo Call

A cold winter night, a fire burning in the fireplace—what could be better? Well, that wood fire isn’t just filling your house with holiday cheer; it’s also filling it with pollutants that can hurt you. Most people don’t realize that the inviting smell of wood smoke comes along with some pretty hazardous byproducts, some of which are toxic or carcinogenic. And the smoke from your fire doesn’t stop at your house. It makes its way into your neighbor’s houses and combines with other pollutants to create the choking haze we experience during inversions.

Wood smoke is the product of incomplete combustion, releasing volatile organic compounds (VOCs), nitrogen oxides (NOx), and fine particulates as the wood burns. During inversions, VOCs and NOx react to form small particles called PM2.5, and these particles build up in the valleys, sometimes reaching unhealthy levels.

Checking air monitor data

Checking air monitor data

In general, fine particle pollution levels in houses that are not burning wood are much lower than outdoor levels. However, the poor air circulation that characterizes inversions traps wood smoke close to the ground, making it easier for it to seep into neighboring houses. Scientific studies have shown that particle pollution levels inside homes that don’t burn wood can be 50 to 70 percent of outdoors levels if there are high levels of wood smoke outside— which means that you could still be breathing in harmful pollutants even when you’re indoors.

We know that fine particulates from wood smoke are bad for your health. Because these particles are too small to be filtered out by your nose and upper respiratory system, they can lodge deeply in your lungs. The toxic chemicals that are released in wood smoke can also bind with these particles, making them even more harmful. Short-term exposures to these particles can aggravate lung ailments, cause asthma attacks, and increase susceptibility to respiratory infections. Long-term exposure can lead to chronic bronchitis, emphysema, and other lung diseases.

Fine particle pollution from wood smoke worsens our air quality, particularly during inversions. The Division of Air Quality (DAQ) takes a proactive approach to reducing PM2.5 during the winter inversion season by issuing mandatory no-burn action alerts when:

  • our air monitors show that PM2.5 concentrations are increasing
  • weather patterns indicate that an inversion is building

By calling a mandatory no-burn action alert before fine particulate levels exceed the National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS), we ensure that pollutants from residential wood smoke don’t contribute to the formation of PM2.5. And we’re serious about enforcing these no-burn actions: our compliance officers monitor neighborhoods using infrared cameras and assess fines of up to $299 to households found violating the ban.

The good news is that we can all make the choice NOT TO BURN. With the exception of a small number of residents in our nonattainment areas that depend on wood as their sole source of heat, most of us use our fireplaces for ambiance, not heat. By choosing alternatives to wood burning—such as natural gas fireplaces— we can protect our health, the health of our neighbors, and the health our community.

Not sure when wood burning is prohibited? Check out our Wood Burn Program web page, where you can find current air quality conditions and action alerts, links to our UtahAir App forAndroid or iOS mobile devices, and an explanation of our forecast symbols. Concerned about neighbors using their fireplaces on mandatory no-burn days? Fill out our confidential electronic complaint form and our compliance officers will follow up on the complaint. For more information on things you can do to protect your health and reduce emissions during inversions, check out our Inversion Toolkit for a comprehensive list of resources.

I have been with the Division of Air Quality (DAQ) for 21 years, Would Burn Smokemanaging the air monitoring section since 2009. Prior to that I worked in DAQ’s compliance branch and conducted source inspections, specializing in asbestos rules and enforcement. I have a BA in Biology from Utah State University. I am a member of the Air Force Reserve as a Transportation Specialist. On my own time, I have a hobby farm and recently entered into the realm of beekeeping.

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This entry was originally published on December 1st, 2014, updated on December 15th, 2016, and posted in news.