Natural by deadly: Huge gaps in the US rules for wood-smoked smoke exposed


Glenn Helkenn lives in a spruce forest, in a tiny log cabin he built himself on the outskirts of Fairbanks, Alaska’s third largest city.

Give him an hour and a handsaw and Helkenn says he can harvest enough firewood to heat his 96-square-foot home for a couple of days, even when the temperature drops to minus 40. For him, it’s about more than free fuel.

“It is what I enjoy doing,” Helkenn said. “You know, it’s the fresh air. It’s the time out in the woods. It’s the snowshoeing. It’s the exercise.”

The trouble is about 12,000 other people in the Fairbanks area burn wood, too. Many buy it by the cord to heat much larger homes. On a cold winter day, when an air inversion sets in, smoke is trapped in low-lying neighborhoods for days or weeks.

Fairbanks has some of the dirtiest air in the country, in large part due to smoke from wood stoves. Wood smoke is a serious health threat. It emits high levels of fine-particle pollution that can be inhaled deep into the lungs, exacerbating respiratory problems like asthma, and increasing the risk of premature death from heart attacks and strokes.

In 2015, the U.S. government required that newer models of wood stoves perform better and has spent millions of dollars to subsidize the transition away from older models. Now, an investigation by state environment officials is revealing a critical flaw in that plan: The latest stoves might not be any less polluting than the previous ones.

State air regulators conducted a review of 250 wood-burning stove certifications and found unexplained data omissions and atypical lab practices.

“We pulled the test reports that are supposed to be publicly posted and we compared — did this certification report meet all the rules? And we couldn’t find any that actually met all the rules,” said Cindy Heil, an air quality official with Alaska’s department of environmental conservation. “So, that’s a problem.”

An association of New England air regulators called NESCAUM retested about a dozen new-model wood stoves in their own labs. They were not able to reproduce the certification results. Some stoves fell short of the standards set in 2015. One produced so much pollution that it wouldn’t have met the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s first-ever standards from 1988.

Read More

Alaska Public, 17 March 2021