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Scott G. Winterton, KSL

Study shows smoke from burning wood along the Wasatch Front dramatically reduced

By Amy Joi O'Donoghue, KSL | Posted - Feb. 4, 2020 at 6:39 p.m.


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SALT LAKE CITY — A new study shows Utah’s campaign against burning wood or other solid fuel during an inversion has grown increasingly effective over the years, with three monitoring stations showing decreases in wood smoke pollution by as much as a factor of five.

“Of the strategies people are looking at to reduce air pollution, this is a pretty effective one,” said University of Utah chemical engineering assistant professor Kerry E. Kelly, who headed up the study.

The study examined wood smoke pollution as part of fine particulate pollution, or PM2.5, at monitoring stations in Salt Lake City, Bountiful and Lindon from 2007 to 2017. It was carried out by researchers that include Kelly, chemical engineering research associate Cristina Jaramillo, the Utah Division of Air Quality and the EPA’s Pacific Northwest office.

Wood-burning restrictions were first implemented in 1999 in Salt Lake County and parts of Davis and Utah counties. Those restrictions were later extended to Cache County and portions of Weber, Box Elder and Tooele counties. Between Nov. 1 and March 1, residents in these areas are prohibited from using wood fireplaces and stoves, pellet stoves and coal stoves on no-burn days during inversions.

Kelly said the 10-year study period showed dramatic wood smoke pollution reductions at each of the monitoring stations as restrictions were put in place and residents became more educated about the harmful health effects of wood smoke.

“More people are aware of these restrictions and are following them, and it’s reducing community-level exposure to air pollution,” she said. “It can benefit all of us because it’s a cost-effective way to reduce pollution.”

The findings amplify the importance of education outreach as well as state and federally funded programs in which money is offered to eligible residents to convert wood-burning fireplaces or stoves to natural gas.

Last year, the program involved 1,800 projects and the program “sold out” of its $2.7 million in eligible funding in just 12 hours.

The Division of Air Quality is rolling out the program this year in multiple counties over the course of several months on a staggered schedule.

Bryce Bird, division director, said there has been an evolution in home heating attitudes since the 1990s.

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“Certainly as I look back at the years I have been working on wood smoke issues, back in the early 1990s it was much more prevalent than it is today,” he said. “I think what made sense a while ago, with less population, has changed to people realizing this just isn’t the best way to heat our homes today.”

Kelly said this latest research is exciting for the university because it underscores findings from a 2013 research paper it released that detailed the significance of wood smoke pollution on fine particulate pollution.

“As a University of Utah researcher, it is exciting that research we were involved in is driving policy decisions and resulting in air quality improvement,” she said.

According to the EPA, the biggest health threat from wood smoke comes from the fine particles it contains that can enter the lungs and cause bronchitis, pneumonia, asthma or other serious respiratory diseases. The particles can also aggravate chronic heart and lung diseases, and are linked to premature deaths in people with those chronic conditions.

Kelly wants to present the findings to the state air quality board and other forums to demonstrate that Utah’s regulatory approaches, incentives and education on the pollution front are enjoying some successes.

“Choosing not to be burn wood is one of the biggest changes an individual could make in terms of improving air quality here,” she added.

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