My house has a 1950s fireplace that has not been upgraded in any way to make it more environmentally friendly. I hope that since I make wood fires only when it's raining, I'm not doing much damage to air quality, since the air always seems perfectly clean after a rainstorm. Am I sufficiently environmentally correct in this matter to avoid the wrath of the environment police?
--George in Berkeley, California
It’s true that rain reduces the outdoor pollution from fireplaces. But if predictions for a rainier-than-normal winter in your area are correct, you might want to curtail burning anyhow, not to avoid the environmental police but to protect your own health.
An outmoded fireplace or wood stove not only pollutes the outdoors, but the indoors as well. Old fireplaces and stoves can emit eight times as much dangerous microparticulate matter (i.e., "smoke") per hour as new ones that meet the EPA's standards. Old fireplaces and old stoves can emit 60 times as much pollution as super-clean models that exceed EPA standards. For a list of EPA-approved models, click here.
In your region, on some days wood-burning accounts for as much as 30 percent of the particulate pollution in the winter, and in some parts of the country, accounts for as much as 80 percent. Since millions of dangerous old stoves and fireplaces are still in operation, the EPA operates a change-out program in some regions; some households are eligible for financial help to replace an outmoded polluter with a new and approved model.
Regarding health hazards, sometimes “officialese” might be the scariest. The EPA says, "Particle pollution--especially fine particles--contains microscopic solids or liquid droplets that are so small that they can get deep into the lungs and cause serious health problems including: increased respiratory symptoms, such as irritation of the airways; coughing, or difficulty breathing; decreased lung function; aggravated asthma; development of chronic bronchitis; irregular heartbeat; nonfatal heart attacks; and premature death in people with heart or lung disease. . . . However, even if you are healthy, you may experience temporary symptoms from exposure to elevated levels of particle pollution.”
Finally, speaking of the environmental police, in your area and growing numbers of others, it is actually illegal to burn wood on days when the air is dirty enough to trigger a ban. So you risk getting busted if you burn on the wrong occasion.