Fire-pit smoke harmful for people living with lung disease

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Note: An edited version of the following article was published in the August 30, 2007 edition of the Saskatoon Star Phoenix.

Fire-pit smoke harmful for people living with lung disease

by Brian Graham, CEO, Lung Association of Saskatchewan
August 23, 2007
In his column of August 18, 2007 Les MacPherson attempts to demean the Lung Association by referring to us as health zealots.
The last time that Mr. MacPherson referred to the Lung Association as a group of health zealots was when we were promoting smoke-free public spaces. He was raising the alarm that we were endangering human rights and freedoms by working to prevent exposure to tobacco smoke. His position was, coincidentally, squarely aligned with the tobacco industry whose ads in his newspaper were a lucrative source of income, and helped many men, women and children become addicted and enslaved to nicotine under the guise of freedom, saying that it was their right to do so.
Now the issue is backyard burning. Mr. MacPherson tries to incite indignation by falsely attributing to the Lung Association the notion that one whiff of smoke from a backyard fire will cause instant death.
This issue is not about death. This is about the people living with chronic lung disease and their caregivers who miss school or work because of the smoke from a neighbour’s fire-pit. It’s about the people who have to increase their use of expensive medications to cope with the smoke that drifts into their homes. It’s about the people who, on a warm summer evening, are forced back into their homes with all the doors and windows shut to avoid the smoke that will make a family member sick.
Mr. MacPherson ridicules the zero-tolerance approach for fire-pit smoke just as he did for cigarette smoke. If all that ever occurred was a whiff of smoke, we wouldn’t be having a problem. The question for Mr. MacPherson is, “How much toxic smoke is safe to inhale?” Similar questions would be “How much polluted water is safe to drink?” or “How far is it safe to drive without a seatbelt?”
As Mr. MacPherson states, fire was an important factor in early civilization, but fortunately we eventually recognized the need to separate the benefits of fire from the hazards of smoke. Unfortunately, in rural areas of developing countries where people still use wood stoves and fireplaces for cooking, the smoke does cause death. More cases of the most common fatal chronic lung disease, COPD, are caused by exposure to smoke from cooking fires than by tobacco smoke. Our ancestors may have lived in smoke-filled shelters, but their life expectancy was much shorter and death rates of children were much higher.
Is there a place for recreational fire-pits? In areas where populations are sparse and there is ample separation between homes, a small open fire would probably not cause problems for a neighbour. People who are bothered by smoke are unlikely to stay at campgrounds where campfires are expected.  However, any fire will necessarily contribute to air pollution and greenhouse gases.
There are many activities that are acceptable in rural areas that are not permitted in urban areas. When you choose to live in urban areas, you forego the right to raise livestock in your backyard, to discharge a firearm or to make sustained loud noise.
Most cities have restrictions on backyard burning of garbage, scrap construction materials, grass and leaves although burning of such items in fire-pits is all too common. Some cities ban any open air fires. Backyard burning rarely involves only dry, well-seasoned wood burned under ideal conditions to minimize smoke production and maximize its dispersal. Even then, wood-smoke is unhealthy. With our quickly changing weather patterns and confined urban setting, there is no way to stop smoke from affecting our neighbours. A complete ban is the only way to avoid the problem.
About 16% of children and 8% of adults have current asthma. From 3% to 5% of adults over the age of 35 have COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease). Because lung disease is variable, the response to smoke will vary from person to person, but people with these lung diseases will generally be more susceptible to adverse effects from smoke. If the smoke from one fire-pit affects four neighbouring houses, and if each house has a typical family of two adults and two children, then the odds are that at least one child and one adult with chronic lung disease will be affected. Add to this the people who suffer effects of wood smoke because of health conditions not directly related to lung disease.
The Lung Association’s mandate is to speak out on behalf of people with lung disease and to advocate for the clean air that all of us need to breathe. When city councils discuss such issues, of course we are going to be there. We will also respond when someone like Mr. MacPherson belittles the work of the Lung Association, trivializing lung health and the problems faced by people living with chronic lung disease.
Our supporters expect nothing less.
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Page Last Updated: 04/07/2008