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The Health Dangers of Wildfires Are Well Known, Why Not Biomass?

For many Americans, particularly in the western United States, the start of summer also means the height of wildfire season. In this month alone, wildfires blaze in Arizona, Colorado, Utah, California, Montana and other western states. We can see the direct destruction that wildfires cause. We also track the harmful wildfire smoke that can threaten the lives and health of firefighters, as well as people living hundreds of miles away.

Harm from wildfires we get. But do you know that some of the same threats to our health come from intentionally burning wood and other plant-based products – collectively known as biomass – to fuel our electricity needs? This goes well beyond wood-burning fireplaces used to keep homes warm. Biomass burning power plants generate electricity on a large-scale right here in the U.S. - and they endanger our health in the process.

What is biomass? The category includes wood products, agricultural residues (think chicken poop) or forest waste, and other highly toxic feed stocks such as construction and demolition waste. Burning these materials as fuel for electricity pollutes the air we breathe.

One major pollutant produced from burning biomass is also one of the most dangerous: particle pollution, also known as soot. These particles are so small that they can enter and lodge deep in the lungs, triggering asthma attacks, heart attacks, strokes and even death. Burning biomass also releases carbon monoxide, leading to headaches, nausea, dizziness, and in high concentrations, premature death. What's more, burning biomass for electricity also produces nitrogen oxides (like nitrogen dioxide) and nasty cancer-causing chemicals, including benzene and formaldehyde.

While these pollutants are harmful to us all, they pose even greater health risks for millions of more vulnerable Americans, such as infants and children, older adults, individuals with respiratory or cardiovascular disease, and diabetics. Too often, power plants are located where lower income communities live or work. Because of this, people in lower income communities are even more vulnerable to these pollutants.

Fortunately, cleaner electricity sources that pose far less harm to public health exist and are readily available. Wind and solar are widely used to provide electricity to the nation without polluting the air Americans breathe. In fact, the U.S. is the world's largest producer of electricity from wind and has tripled our wind production since 2008.1 Replacing dirtier fuels like coal, oil, natural gas and biomass with increased reliance on wind and solar and other truly clean sources of electricity will help reduce air pollution that can trigger asthma attacks and heart attacks, cause cancer and shorten lives. It is crucial that the nation continue to transition to sources of energy that do not endanger human health or contribute to climate change.

You can help! Many people don't realize how unhealthy biomass can be – including decision-makers in Washington, D.C. They need to hear from you that you support strong clean air protections to protect your family's health.

Send a message to your members of Congress urging them to stand up for protections from particle pollution, carbon monoxide and other dangerous air pollutants that come from burning biomass.

As the dog days of summer continue and wildfire season burns on, remember that air pollution remains a threat to all Americans' health. Let's raise awareness of the dangers and health risks of burning biomass to meet our electricity needs. We must urge our leaders to support healthy air for all. Please add your voice to the conversation.

1. U.S. Energy Information Agency. Energy in Brief March 4, 2016.

Related Topic: Healthy Air

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Submitted by CaresAboutHealth at: April 15, 2017
Although biomass power plants cause unnecessary pollution, it's nothing like as bad as the exposure from living next to a house with a wood stove. An EPA-certified wood stove produces as much PM2.5 per year as 2,200 passenger cars. If the chimney is close to windows, a large proportion will end up entering the home and the lungs of the unfortunately people living there. Efficient heater-air-conditioners are cheaper than wood stoves and have lower running costs than buying firewood. It would be great to see the ALA double its efforts to clean up this unnecessary source of health-hazardous pollution, so that Americans can enjoy similar health benefits to those enjoyed in Launceston, Tasmania, where a program to replace wood stoves with non-polluting heating reduced deaths in winter from respiratory disease by 28% and cardiovascular disease by 20%.
Submitted by Northern Regions at: August 4, 2016
I would like to think that all wood burning power plants have sophisticated emission control systems but I would like more information as I hear that the units in California are very dirty. I can only speak for certainty re. the Canadian plant in Nova Scotia which is only 21% efficient and pollutes on a massive scale. I understand that green wood is being chipped and if this is the case, combustion efficiency is so poor that no pollution controls will handle this. Wood burning in urban centres is even more alarming as the EPA approved wood stoves are a failure and the Outdoor Wood Boilers are an emission horror story.
Submitted by mt4stree at: August 3, 2016
I encourage the ALA writer to do some research on the topic of pollutants from wildfire compared to biomass combustion. He/She will find that wildfire smoke is full of organic compounds the result of incomplete combustion, some of which are highly toxic. The particulate matter from advanced controlled combustion in today's electricity, heat, cooling or combined generation systems that also use advanced filtration systems, like electrostatic precipitators or baghouse filters is very different than wildfire smoke. The PM is primarily inorganic salts with a very low toxicity level that is orders of magnitude lower than wildfire smoke. That fact combined with the use of filtration systems results in miniscule levels of emissions compared to wildfires that burn equivalent amounts of biomass. So the answer to the question the article posits is that the health affects are not even close in comparison and ALA's saying incorrectly that they are is unfortunate and I encourage ALA to reexamine their position on the use of biomass and support its use for renewable energy. The reality is the use of biomass as a way of disposing of the trees and shrubs that need to be thinned from forest lands to reduce the severity of wildfires can be a very positive effect on air quality while at the same time reducing the fossil carbon emissions that drive climate change, which in turn is driving worse fire seasons. Lastly we need all forms of renewable energy sources including, wind, solar, geothermal, hydro, tidal and biomass derived energy to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels. It is not an either or choice, none of those sources is sufficient by themselves, we need all of them. I encourage readers to contact their elected representatives and support the use of biomass for energy as a way to improve air quality when the situation is viewed holistically.
Submitted by Compared to what? at: July 20, 2016
The fallacy of this post seems to be the implication, that by not converting biomass into electricity (and/or heat and/or cooling,) emissions of criteria pollutants are somehow avoided. But many of these emissions happen, by wildfires, which are, to a certain extent, a natural disturbance process here in the West. What makes pollutants from wildfires so numerous and complex and detrimental to health is the fact, that the combustion of the biomass is incomplete. Particles and dozens of chemical compounds, more or less toxic, are produced and released by these uncontrolled combustion processes. Now compare that with nearly complete combustion in a modern and highly efficient EGU (electricity generating unit) or C(C)HP (combined (cooling) heat power) plant, in a highly controlled combustion process, followed by filters and precipitators, and biomass combustion might become a process to clean the air we breathe. What the post completely omits are alternative technologies to convert biomass to power and heat, e.g. via gasification and pyrolysis, producing char along the way, thus providing a pathway to sequester carbon from the atmosphere, and potentially becoming a factor in mitigating climate change.
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