Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

As Weather Gets Colder, Health Risks in Ithaca Ignite

By Kaylin GreenePublished November 8, 2013

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The City of Ithaca prides itself on being a unique place where residents can engage liberally in their chosen lifestyles and philosophies without fear of government repercussion. It is a place of acceptance and environmental awareness. However, smoke pollution from domestic woodburning damages the quality of life for many residents. Given that the city signed a resolution for the Clean Air Act in November, 2012, it would be in their best interest to live up to their promise.
By Kaylin Greene, published 11/08/2013

           Temperatures in Ithaca are dropping, encouraging people to turn up the thermostat, break out the space heaters and begin using the fireplaces. However, unlike smoke-free methods of heating up the home, wood burning in the winter invites a host of pollution-related problems for everyone in the community. Most Cornell students don't have the option for igniting open fires in dorms and off-campus housing, but many residents of Tompkins County do.

            Motivations behind purchasing and installing a wood-burning stove could include perceived cost-effectiveness and personal values to live a more "natural" lifestyle; "off the grid" so to speak. While it is wise to use resources conservatively (and burning trash and free wood initially seems like a great idea to extrude heat and light energy out of waste), the truth is that—on a personal level—this is a very inefficient means of staying warm in the winter. On a community level, trash and green wood smoke is loaded with carcinogens and is generally smokier and more disruptive.

            Some homeowners see wood burners and fireplaces as a way to save money by not needing to purchase gas and electric services. Some wood—particularly green wood that has not been seasoned for burning—is available for free. Old newspapers and trash are also readily available sources of "free" fuel. The average cost of heating a family home using natural gas in the Northeast is estimated to rise to $679 this year, while the one-time cost for installing a wood-burner can be as low as $1,000. Additionally, the federal government offers a $300 tax credit for people who install stoves that meet clean energy requirements. The result is that some people choose to improperly install and operate wood burners for the cheapest possible cost without considering the impacts that smoke pollution has on surrounding neighbors and the environment: Thousands of dollars in healthcare costs due to smoke inhalation outweigh the maximum of $255 per year in savings that an individual would save by installing a wood-burner. Since the $300 tax credit is set to expire at the end of this year, future private benefits will significantly decrease.

             The problem is that the solution to this issue is very complex. Encouraging behavioral changes would be less invasive from a governmental standpoint, but would ultimately be less effective. Keeping warm in the winter by wearing more clothes, socks and shoes is one option that saves many a college student a few hundred dollars in heating bills. Better insulation of the house cuts down on the need to use an open fire as often. Using the stove at times when warmth is most needed—such as in the evenings before bedtime and in the mornings when waking up (but not during sleeping or working hours)—would also be helpful. Choosing sources of fuel that do not produce as much smoky air pollution is also important. However, trying to convince owners of wood-burners to change their behavior, even after educating them about the negative impacts, is a very difficult task. Article IX, S-9.01 on page S26 in the Tompkins County Sanitary Code says that "No person shall discharge into the outdoor air any contaminants, smoke or other material that may cause… injury to or endanger the health and safety of any person…" Despite several complaints filed by city residents on these grounds, law enforcers have failed to enforce wood-burning households to reduce or eliminate their smoke output.

             There are several solutions that involve exterior pressure and regulation by the government that would be very effective. Homeowners who burn wood in rural, isolated locations do not impact their neighbors as much as homeowners who decide to burn wood in densely populated city areas would. City regulations should ban woodburning in these areas that have ready access to gas and electric lines. If this demand cannot be met, the city should establish temperature limits above which it is illegal to use a woodburning stove, such as 50 degrees. Other options such as restricting the times at which it is appropriate to burn wood to 5-10 in the evening and 5-10 in the morning would cut down on the hours during which a stove is in use during sleeping and business hours when people are not at home. At the very least, woodburning stoves and homes should be evaluated before, during and after installation to ensure the appropriateness of such a stove, correct installation, and correct operation and fuel sources. Regardless, smoke from an "approved" stove that continues to negatively impact the surrounding community should be enough reason to reassess permissions allowing a person to own and utilize such a stove.

             Smoke pollution severely damages the quality of health for people who live in areas affected by it—the facts are not new. It is somewhat surprising, however, that it has taken this long for the World Health Organization to officially acknowledge air pollution as a carcinogen in a recently published report. An article published in The Scientist on October 21 underlines that it is imperative to improve the quality of the air.

             The City of Ithaca prides itself on being a unique place where residents can engage liberally in their chosen lifestyles and philosophies without fear of government repercussion. It is a place of acceptance and environmental awareness. However, when the practices of some residents encroach upon others' right to a quality and healthy life, the city government must advocate for the health of the community at large at the expense of the freedom of a few. Given that the city signed a resolution for the Clean Air Act in November, 2012, it would be in their best interest, at the very least, to live up to their promise.