Wrapped in woods, nestled by a lake and the beginnings of a great river, Bemidji has always prided itself on being a postcard place up north: natural and mythic, relaxed and four-seasons outdoorsy, with the nostalgic scent of wood smoke a fragrant reminder of place and lifestyle.
“I was just out this morning, running some errands, and you couldn’t help but notice a nice, pleasant smell of fall in the air, the scent of wood burning,” Mayor Richard Lehmann said Tuesday. “It’s a pretty fair amount of people who burn wood here.”
But spurred by a few citizen complaints that wood smoke represents a health threat, especially to residents who suffer from asthma or other respiratory ailments, the City Council is contemplating a proposed ordinance that would restrict the installation and use of wood-burning stoves within city limits.
Measure delayed for more research
The ordinance was to have its second reading last week, but citizen objections caused the council to delay action until City Attorney Al Felix can do more research and make revisions. Mayor Lehmann said the revised measure could come back to the council next month.
“There is some concern about smoke affecting people with a low tolerance, such as people with asthma,” he said. “We’re not looking at trying to stop people from using wood as their primary heat source, but some people may have a sensitivity to it.”
That’s true, says the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA), which details the potentially harmful effects of wood smoke on its website.
Burning wood puts fine particles and toxins in the air, which “can trigger asthma attacks in a manner similar to diesel exhaust or secondhand cigarette smoke,” according to Laura Oatman, an environmental research scientist with the Minnesota Department of Health.
A variety of harmful substances
Wood smoke contains such harmful substances as carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, volatile organic compounds and inhalable particulate matter: wood tars, gases, soot, ashes and potentially carcinogenic toxins. Breathing air containing wood smoke can irritate the eyes, lungs, throat and sinuses, health officials report — and not just when you lean into a smoky campfire to roast marshmallows for s’mores. It can reduce lung function, especially in young children, and increase risk of heart attack.
The MPCA recommends that people who burn wood build only small, hot fires with dry, seasoned wood, and to properly maintain stoves and chimneys.
Lehmann said that Bemidji will work with manufacturers of wood-burning stoves and outdoor boilers to set reasonable standards that reduce the risk of health problems. The new ordinance may require stacks or chimneys that take smoke above neighbors’ homes, for example, though people with wood burners have objected that higher stacks are unstable and smoke drift is affected more by wind anyway.
The city also wants to learn more about what kinds of wood residents are burning, the mayor said.
“I’ve burned wood, and as long as it’s good, clean wood I don’t think it’s unpleasant or irritating,” Lehmann said.
Council might consider ‘grandfathering’
In response to residents who’ve objected that they’ve made a substantial investment in wood-burning boilers to heat their homes, city officials have said they might consider “grandfathering” existing stoves out of any new restrictions. But Council Member Nancy Erickson said she isn’t sure that makes sense if the city determines the stoves are in fact a health issue.
She said she agrees with Lehmann that a light, lingering scent of wood smoke helps to define Bemidji. The economics of heating with wood are right, she said, and it’s true that the quality of fuel used in wood stoves and boilers is a critical factor.
“It’s what you burn that we’re concerned about,” she said. “Treated wood, plywood, garbage — we don’t know how prevalent chemicals may be in those, as opposed to clean, dry wood.
“But we’re an outdoor community. That’s our lifestyle, and part of that is the campfire. People may have a lot invested in their stoves, and right now it’s a substantial savings to heat with wood.”