Wood Smoke Stories

Five years in Hell

I’m a registered professional engineer. My wife is a professor and a registered nurse. Our story “Five Years in Hell” unfolded between early 2002 and mid-2007. We endured never ending downwind exposure to wood burning emissions from indoor and outdoor wood burning.

We could not pick up and move our home to avoid the exposure to wood burning emissions. The wood burning in Bethel Park, PA was sometimes 24/7, day in day out, all hours of the day and night, all year round at all temperatures (up to 94 degrees) often from wood burning indoors and out at the same time.

The signature stench and smoke sometimes created a veritable war zone that we dreaded re-entering on return from work at the end of the day or on return from an outing. The emissions infiltrated our house even with doors and windows forcibly closed against our will for five years to the exclusion of natural ventilation. We noted over 700 pollution events and filed over 300 complaints. . .

Wood burning destroyed our lives in every respect. We suffered loss of health, stress, irritability, headaches, nausea, inability to function normally, inability to enjoy property indoors or out — a horrific inconceivable tragedy! Exposure to wood smoke and its attendant fine particulate pollution is a killer in more ways than one. It engenders despair, loss of hope and loss of quality of life in those that it visits.

After some years, Bethel Park took the burners to District Court where they were found guilty and then to Common Pleas Court. Allegheny County Health Department took the burners to its Administrative Court and then prosecuted the case in Common Pleas Court when the burners appealed the guilty verdict by its Administrative Judge. The Judge's Agreement/Decree prohibited burning at or above 40 degrees but allowed it below 40 degrees contrary to the ordinance which makes no differentiation as to temperature.

As the years wore on and with no relief in sight we purchased the burners’ lot through the services of counsel. No one save ourselves could or would stop the suffering. The County must compress its revision cycle and work with and accept input from interested parties on the next revision to stop exposure to emissions from open wood burning.

Because the effects of carcinogenic air pollution are a function of all levels of exposure over time only curtailment of localized open wood burning in the micro-environment of residential spaces and neighborhoods can be effective. This issue is no different than curtailment of smoking in closed and open spaces to prevent second hand smoke and its health effects.

Thick smoke pours from an outdoor wood-burning fire pit.