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Another Spare The Air Day: Why So Many? Air District Responds

Friday marked the ninth Spare the Air day of 2013, banning solid-fuel burning for 24 hours due to poor air quality forecasts. It's all about incomplete combustion and large particulates, says air district spokesman Ralph Borrmann.

Friday, Jan. 25, was declared a Spare the Air day — the ninth day so far in 2013 on which solid-fuel burning has been banned.

The unusual number of Spare The Air days so far this year has caused the usual chorus of protests on Patch to become louder and more numerous.

A typical complaint goes something like this: with four major refineries in the Bay Area, why does the Bay Area Air Quality Management District feel the need to ban fires in home fireplaces, particularly on cold, and even rainy, days?

People have burned fires in their homes and backyards for years, with seemingly no ill effects on health. So why are there suddenly a rash of days when people are legally prohibited from having a cozy fire in the privacy of their own homes?

Patch asked air district spokesman Ralph Borrmann for a few minutes. Here’s what he had to say:

Patch: Why can refineries operate normally on Spare The Air days, but private citizens can’t have a simple fire in their fireplace?

Borrmann: The air district does regulate and enforce regulations and restrictions on refineries. But you have to keep in mind that there are also roughly 1.4 million fireplaces in the Bay Area. Fifty percent of the homes in this area have fireplaces. They produce much larger particulates than refineries. When those levels look as if they are going to be elevated on certain days, that’s when we restrict wood burning. Fine particulate pollution is one of the greatest health threats. It’s associated with asthma, heart disease and other very serious illnesses. If you can’t see it, people assume it isn’t there. But that’s not true with drinking water or eating food, and it’s not true with air. That’s why we have a monitoring network, and a technical staff that has decades of experience.

Patch: People have been burning fires since the stone age. What’s the problem now?

Borrmann: In the last couple of the decades, we’ve learned a lot about wood smoke that we didn’t know in the past. High amount of particulates are linked to respiratory incidents. So just as the air district regulates industrial sources of pollution, it also has authority to regulate fireplaces. We are also required by federal law—the Clean Air Act--to meet standards of clean air. It makes sense that when we believe air quality to be unhealthy, to have a ban on those days.

Patch: What about rainy days?  

Borrmann: Wind is the major factor. You can have a little bit of rain and still not have enough pressure in the system to move the pollutants and ventilate them. You need wind. What’s been happening this month is this system sitting over northern California is impacting the Bay Area, and it’s not allowing for the dispersal of pollutants. They build up day by day. On certain days they’re going to peak. That’s when we call an alert. People think particulates are washed out by the rain. When we talk about particulates, especially fine particulates, they behave like a gas to some extent. They don’t necessarily get washed out. They penetrate the body’s defenses.

There are particulates associated with any type of combustion. Refineries put out air pollution. Diesel trucks put out a lot of particulates. They’re a concern, and the air district has focused on the Port of Oakland to reduce particulates in that location.

So what you see when you see smoke is incomplete combustion. When it comes out of a chimney, it’s not combusting it cleanly, it’s still highly polluting. And that’s very harmful. We know a lot more now about the health effects of things than we did decades ago. As we know more, the health standards issued by the federal government get stricter.  

What do you think of these explanations? Tell us in the comments.

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Unfiltered Steve Simoneau January 30, 2013 at 05:45 PM
If the government suddenly and immediately made fireplaces and open fires illegal from November 1st until February 28th the public would protest and revolt. But if the government s l o w l y increases the frequency of "Spare The Air days" until the public becomes accustomed to them it will be easier to extend it to "Spare The Air week/month/season". In government think tanks it's known as "progressive encroachment", and it has been used for many things. In the early 1970's people could smoke cigarettes in grocery stores, airplanes, shopping malls, even hospitals. Today cigarettes are limited to very specific areas only (for DEFINITE health benefits). It would have been impossible to enforce that overnight, but it went pretty smoothly by using "progressive encroachment" over a couple decades.
Lorie January 30, 2013 at 06:16 PM
You mean, like an "agenda"...or, "conspiracy theory"?
Scott Yeager January 30, 2013 at 06:51 PM
It's not a conspiracy theory.
MICHAEL P WILSON "Independent Kid" January 30, 2013 at 07:03 PM
Ya it is called Russia in the 1930s. I hope you all like bread lines.
Unfiltered Steve Simoneau January 30, 2013 at 07:21 PM
No, Lorie, conspiring is done to enable something that is unlawful or harmful. Cleaning the air is neither of those, but it is healthier for people in general. Please look up the definition of 'agenda', as it is harmless. Unfortunately, the government has chosen to target something that the public enjoys and views as tradition: A warm cozy fire in a fireplace on a cold day or night. The government knows that messing with tradition never goes over very well, so they must start small to keep the public from feeling uncomfortable or threatened. According to your logic, getting children to eat more vegetables by starting with "just take one bite" is a conspiracy theory.
Karl Voigt January 31, 2013 at 12:41 AM
The "explanation" seems full of holes. Mr. Borrmann (name even sounds like someone from a fascist propaganda agency) seems to flip back and forth between particle size depending on what argument he wants to make, i.e. fireplaces make "big" particles when he's talking respiratory threat, but fireplaces make "little" particles when it comes to rain washing pollutants out of the air. In general I'd like to hear an explanation that's a heck of a lot more quantitative and empirical, especially when it comes to the original question about home fireplaces verses big refineries owned by huge multinational corporations. What are the total tons of different particle sizes and different pollutants spewed out by refineries vs households ? He comes up with a total number of fireplaces in the bay area BUT no credible way to determine how many of those are or would be in use on a given day. I'm betting that Herr Borrmann and his ilk, in order to justify their face in the trough government jobs, just find it a lot easier to push the peasants around that to take on the real polluters.
Tom January 31, 2013 at 03:12 AM
Unfiltered Steve Simoneau, Things like this must be done in a gradual evolution, and they must be done in a way that does not cause insurrection. In my own observations, the things that are ingrained in our conscienceness (like fireplaces) are a hard thing to change peoples' minds about, while those things that are relatively new (like nuclear bombs were in the 1950s) are not hard to get people to be against. That is why Prohibition failed: people had been drinking alcohol since the beginning of time (even Jesus turned water into wine) But if we want people to reject alcohol /tobacco / junk food / woodburning, it takes time to educate and convince people that these things are very bad for public health.
Tom January 31, 2013 at 03:16 AM
I will have you know that Russia of the 1930s had some very bad air pollution. In fact, belching smokestacks were called "the breath of Russian prosperity." Perhaps air pollution is a Communist thing ?
Karl Voigt January 31, 2013 at 03:05 PM
What all of these gradualist-appologists are saying is they want to cook you like a frog. That is, one puts a frog in a pot and very slowly raises the temperature. The temperature is raised slowly enough that the frog doesn't realize he/or she is being cooked until it's too late.....they are cooked and dead.
Dar February 02, 2013 at 11:55 PM
Sorry but right now as I read all this bs about spare the air day i sit by my fireplace.....nice and warm and not paying PGE a fortune to just be comfortable...I am on a fixed income and my last PGE bill was $400.00 a third of what I bring in monthly...so if comes down to eating I will use my fireplace as much as I want.....this is all a money ploy...how much does PGE pay you guys to call these days.........im warm and dont give a damn about spare the air day!

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