Why So Many Spare The Air Days? The Air District Responds

It's all about incomplete combustion and large particulates, says air district spokesman Ralph Borrmann.

There have been an unusual number of Spare The Air days so far this year, and that 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.  

David Ross January 30, 2013 at 03:58 AM
Why didn't Patch do real research rather than just asking the spokesman who just parroted the junk science of the BAAQMD? Or, at the very least, why didn't Patch ask why the entire 6000+ square miles of the Bay Area is put under a spare the air day when anyone with an IQ of more than 10 realizes the Bay Area's weather is not the same throughout? (Never mind - I realized the answer - to work for the BAAQMD your IQ must be 10 or less.)
Vicki Cosgrove January 30, 2013 at 07:54 PM
I wish we had MORE of them. Hate when I can smell other people's smoke in my house.
tobylerone January 31, 2013 at 02:10 AM
Thanks, Jim, for your *ahem* unbiased journalism. And as we 'know more,' our freedoms disappear. How lovely.
Edward January 31, 2013 at 05:37 PM
What about the high prices for Natural Gas and Electricity that PG&E Charges on Spare the Air Days. PG&E has "Smart Meters" and a tiered tarriff system. Why not get them, on Spare the Air Days, to charge the lowest rate, rather than the Highest rate on those days. They can see what days are "spare the air' Alerts are given and give the lower rates durring the 24 hour period and that would help consumers. The only reason we even use Fire Stoves in the 21st Centrury is because utilities want and "Arm and a Leg" for energy. Air tight Stoves were introduced in the 1970's when Natural Gas rates spiked and wood became the "Cheaper Fuel". Make "Natural Gas" the cheaper fuel for homes and you would not need "Spare the Air" at all.
Edward February 03, 2013 at 07:04 PM
Next logical step is to stop people from burning that awfull weed, Tobaco, on Spare the Air Days. After all, the health risks of second hand smoke are well known and some people "smoke like a Chimney". " No smoking ... on spare the air days in the Bay Area" Signs will be going up soon at all the State Parks, public parks and along streets.


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