Polluted Air in Humboldt County, California
There’s a widespread popular belief here in Humboldt County, California, that because this is a rural area, we have good air quality. But we don’t. Wood burning is rampant here, and many neighborhoods have unhealthy air quality as a result.
In 1995—nearly 28 years ago as I write this—our North Coast Unified Air Quality Management District (NCUAQMD) put out a draft PM10 attainment plan that stated: “The need for improved wood burning regulations is necessary to protect human health. Wood smoke contains PM10, carbon monoxide, formaldehydes, toxic and carcinogenic compounds…” They noted, “EPA estimates on a given bad air pollution day, breathing wood smoke particles is equivalent to smoking 16 cigarettes for that day.”
Here it is nearly three decades later, and we are still waiting for those “improved wood burning regulations.” Our official air quality numbers are based on very little data: a couple of carefully positioned monitors that are both in the county seat of our geographically large county. Neither monitor is located to realistically reflect our wood smoke problem.
One of their staff members once told me that even if the smoke coming out of a chimney is black and smells of burning plastic they won’t investigate it, because wood burners have a right to privacy.
I was widowed recently. My husband’s body was carried out by the mortuary staff in a thick pall of my neighbors’ smoke. It felt like a final insult after years of choking on wood smoke and incidents like his middle-of-the-night ambulance ride to the ER for a severely irregular heartbeat after a neighbor installed a second wood stove and burned both relentlessly 24/7 for a week. A few years later he had a heart attack during a time when our house was covered with smoke.
Near the end, while my husband was bedridden on hospice after having a stroke, we couldn’t even open a window for him without filling the room with smoke. This is the charm of rural living in Humboldt County.
There is so little awareness of what a terrible health hazard this is, that the logo (and branding imagery) of the company that provided my husband’s hospice services features stylized smoke plumes coming from a house’s chimney. Obviously, nothing says comfort like spending your last debilitated days with no fresh air in an air pollution hotspot.
The photo shows the soot that comes off the window when I clean the inside of the glass on my front door. One of the selling points when we bought our house was that it was well-insulated and had good air quality—it wasn’t musty, unlike so many houses in our often rainy county. We never even thought about wood smoke. Our nearest wood-burning neighbors moved in after we did.