The Fire Rings Delusion
On a cold night, most people consider a well-tended fire to be one of the more wholesome pleasures that humanity has produced. A fire, burning safely within the confines of a fireplace or a woodstove, is a visible and tangible source of comfort to us. We love everything about it: the warmth, the beauty of its flames, and—unless one is allergic to smoke—the smell that it imparts to the surrounding air… I am sorry to say that if you feel this way about a wood fire, you are not only wrong but dangerously misguided.
Just this week UCLA neuroscientist and author Sam Harris published his “Fireplace Delusion“. It comes at a good time; just as the Newport Beach Parks, Beaches & Recreation Commission is set to review the beach fire rings.
As a cyclist, I’m gulping air as I pedal around town. I’m riding for my health and often ride the coastal routes, thinking the air is cleaner there. I’ve lived here 14 years and as I do the math I wonder to what extent I’ve shortened my life by breathing smoke-filled air from the Big Corona fire rings.
There are 27 of these smoke-belching fire pits just a hundred yards from my home. No pity for the poor people who live at the beach, you say? The carcinogens from these wood burning rings float all over Orange County, poisoning us all.
There’s a meeting at 6pm Tuesday February 7th at the Council Chambers; please come and support clean air. Bring your head as well as your heart. It’s charming to hear of that first kiss at the fire rings, but the cold scientific truth is that these wood burning fire rings pollute our air. Sam has more to say:
Because wood is among the most natural substances on earth, and its use as a fuel is universal, most people imagine that burning wood must be a perfectly benign thing to do. Breathing winter air scented by wood smoke seems utterly unlike puffing on a cigarette or inhaling the exhaust from a passing truck. But this is an illusion. Here is what we know from a scientific point of view: There is no amount of wood smoke that is good to breathe. It is at least as bad for you as cigarette smoke, and probably much worse. (One study found it to be 30 times more potent a carcinogen.) The smoke from an ordinary wood fire contains hundreds of compounds known to be carcinogenic, mutagenic, teratogenic, and irritating to the respiratory system. Most of the particles generated by burning wood are smaller than one micron—a size believed to be most damaging to our lungs. In fact, these particles are so fine that they can evade our mucociliary defenses and travel directly into the bloodstream, posing a risk to the heart. Particles this size also resist gravitational settling, remaining airborne for weeks at a time.
The case against burning wood is every bit as clear as the case against smoking cigarettes. Indeed, it is even clearer, because when you light a fire, you needlessly poison the air that everyone around you for miles must breathe. Even if you reject every intrusion of the “nanny state,” you should agree that the recreational burning of wood is unethical and should be illegal, especially in urban areas. By lighting a fire, you are creating pollution that you cannot dispose. It might be the clearest day of the year, but burn a sufficient quantity of wood and the air in the vicinity of your home will resemble a bad day in Beijing. Your neighbors should not have to pay the cost of this archaic behavior of yours. And there is no way they can transfer this cost to you in a way that would preserve their interests. Therefore, even libertarians should be willing to pass a law prohibiting the recreational burning of wood in favor of cleaner alternatives (like gas).
Come out Tuesday night and lend your support to clean air and a healthy lifestyle.