No burn days on the horizon: Holidays can be tough for those with lung problems

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Gathering with friends and family around a warm, cozy backyard fire after a hearty meal is a holiday tradition for many residents throughout the Valley.

And while it may be a joyous occasion for some, the smoke from that fire could be causing pain and agony for others.

Maricopa County Department of Public Health officials say smoke from burning wood in fireplaces and fire pits, as well as fireworks around New Year’s Eve, can gather over the Valley during periods of quiet weather and impact people’s health, especially those with asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD.

Maricopa County Air Quality Department estimates that between November and January smoke pollution is 30% higher on weekends and holidays than on weekdays.

Erin Jordan, Ph.D., public information officer for the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality.

said more than 50% of ozone created from man-made pollution in the Valley is from automobiles.

She added wood burning in the surrounding Valley — from as far west as Surprise or Peoria, to Scottsdale or Fountain Hills in the east — also contributes to air pollution throughout the Valley.

It’s not unusual to see a brown cloud sitting over the Valley. This brown cloud is buildup of small particulates, or PM-2.5, that comes from a number of sources, including automobiles and wood burning fires, she said.

“People living all across the Valley can contribute to the problem. Smoke sinks to the low lying areas of the Valley during the cool hours of the night. It’s one of the reasons you see the brown cloud of pollution over downtown Phoenix and west, toward Goodyear and Buckeye,” Ms. Jordan said.

“If people are burning wood in the northeast part of the Valley, their smoke adds to the problem on the west side of the Valley.”

When PM-2.5 reaches levels that are high, it reduces visibility and causes the air to appear hazy. Levels are most likely to be elevated on days with little or no wind or air mixing.

High levels of PM-2.5 can be unhealthy for sensitive groups.

The Maricopa County Department of Public Health estimated that in 2018 there were almost 128,000 emergency doctor visits and hospitalizations related to asthma, and 87,000 emergency doctor visits and hospitalizations related to COPD.

Ms. Jordan said one study performed by the Maricopa County Air Quality Department and Maricopa County Department of Public Health revealed adults with asthma have a 20% higher risk of going to the emergency room following a poor air quality day than on other days.

Last Thanksgiving, one air quality monitor recorded levels of PM-2.5 exceeding federal health standards -- the earliest that’s ever happened since keeping records began in 2010, she said.

“While this is a time of joy for many, this is also when air quality can be a concern,” Ms. Jordan said.

When the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality issues an air quality alert this time of year, the Maricopa County Air Quality Department issues a No Burn Day, restricting burning of wood by residents and businesses.

The  purpose of the No Burn Day restriction is to avoid adding pollution to the air when the forecast suggests air quality will approach or exceed the federal health standard.

Burning wood in fireplaces, fire pits, chimineas and open outdoor fires are included in the No Burn Day restrictions, which last for  a  24-hour  period,  starting at midnight.

No Burn Days are enforced by the Maricopa County Air Quality Department.

Air quality inspectors respond to residential, commercial and open burn complaints when restrictions are in place.

Fines for improper burning in fireplaces, chimineas, and wood stoves at residential locations range from $50 to $250 depending on the number of violations issued to the individual.

The minimum fine for an illegal outdoor fire is under $200. Higher fines may be assessed depending on purpose of the fire, the type and amount of material burned, and other factors associated with the violation.

Sun City Fire Chief Ronald Deadman said air quality becomes an issue for fire agencies when specific materials, such as diesel fuel or hazardous materials, have leaked or are burning.

“When that occurs we notify AZDEQ to send out an advisory to area residents to close their windows and stay indoors until the situation is brought under control,” he said.

City officials from Surprise and Peoria said when ADEQ puts out high pollution advisories and No Burn Day information, the cities share the information on the city website, social media channels and with news email subscribers.

There are many things residents can do to mitigate air pollution:

  • Electric vehicle — Residents may qualify for up to $3,500 off a new Nissan LEAF.
  • Electric instead of gasoline lawn or garden equipment — Residents may qualify for a $150 voucher for new lawn and garden equipment from the Maricopa County Air Quality Department.
  • Propane fire pit — Residents may qualify for a $75 voucher from Maricopa County for a propane fire pit.
  • Upgrade to a wood burning fireplace — Environmental Protection Agency offers guidance for selecting a new fireplace.
  • Qualify for the Maricopa County fireplace retrofit program.

For more details on these options, visit azdeq.gov/GivetheGift.

News Editor Philip Haldiman can be reached at 623-876-3697, phaldiman@newszap.com, or on Twitter @philiphaldiman.

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