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New crusade for smoke foes
Dangers posed by fireplaces, wood-burning pizzerias bring warnings
By Ames Boykin | Daily Herald Staff

Kenneth Dubinski of Elk Grove Village wants to ban wood burning, saying it causes damaging secondhand smoke. Here, he demonstrates how his friends in Arlington Heights use a gas fireplace and love it.


Mark Black | Staff Photographer

Wood fires can be mesmerizing and relaxing, while some activists want to ban them.


Jeff Knox | Staff Photographer

Wood fire pizza restaurants have become more popular around Chicago in recent years.


Christopher Hankins | Staff Photographer

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Published: 2/24/2008 12:26 AM

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Crackling logs in the hearth offer a toasty reprieve during these brutal winter months.

People also tend to melt at the smell and taste of pizza baking in a woodfire.

But one suburban resident wants these fires to go cold in the name of good health.

Kenneth Dubinski of Elk Grove Village is leading a group seeking to prevent wood smoke from wafting through the air, pushing to ban what he calls the new secondhand smoke. He is working to galvanize support on the heels of a statewide tobacco smoking ban.

For Dubinski, this is familiar terrain: He actively railed against smoking on airplanes in the 1980s and fought for the smoking ban in public places which took effect last month.

Since his hometown of Elk Grove Village lifted the ban on outdoor wood burning in 2004, Dubinski has smelled something foul.

"The main thing is people are worried about secondhand smoke. That's what this is. I come home and get headaches," he said, blaming wood smoke from his neighbors.

Dubinski, who has been active in mobilizing a small yet determined group under the name Breathe Healthy Air, points to a dossier of research he has collected.

Wood smoke is a major contributor to particulate matter in the air and can be linked to increased risks of emergency room visits and hospitalizations for cardiopulmonary conditions and premature death, according to the American Lung Association.

Besides kicking up particulate matter, wood-smoke emissions contain carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, sulfur dioxide, hydrochloric acid, formaldehyde and chemicals known or suspected to cause cancer, the association said.

Dubinski cites such evidence as he battles wood smoke. He also wants lawmakers to issue financial incentives for converting wood-burning fireplaces to natural gas. No state lawmakers have taken up the issue yet.

A ban is a hard sell to those Chicago-area residents who adore their fireplaces and wood stoves -- and many are fuming at the idea.

Bill Wilson, who runs Brix Wood Fired Pizza in Lombard, chuckled at the thought of banning the very thing that lures his customers.

"Everybody says, 'Man, that smells so good. I had to come in,' " Wilson said.

Besides, he said, it's part of our primal existence.

"If we didn't have wood burning, nobody would be here," Wilson said. "That's how the caveman lived. If he didn't have fire, he wouldn't eat."

Rick Vlahos, of McHenry, who works as senior manager of training for the Hearth, Patio & Barbecue Association, loves his wood stove. He says he used it frequently when he lived in Palatine and Schaumburg.

About 20 years ago, federal environmental regulators began restricting wood stove emissions to create cleaner air. As a result, modern wood stoves belch a cleaner smoke, he said, recommending stoves built before 1988 be retired.

Illinois Environmental Protection Agency officials have no immediate plans to recommend the statewide ban or limitations that Dubinski and other wood-burning foes seek, said Jill Watson, state EPA spokeswoman.

The agency does acknowledge, however, that wood smoke contributes to air pollution.

Wood smoke has become more of an issue in the more mountainous Northeast region due to air inversions that trap the smoke. New Hampshire state lawmakers are looking at placing limits on outdoor wood furnaces, called wood boilers, by ensuring they are at least 50 feet from property lines.

Wood smoke has created similar concerns out West. In the San Francisco area, there's a proposed ban on burning wood on bad air days.

"In an environment like Chicago where there are no mountains, smoke just dissipates and goes away," said Vlahos of the barbecue association.

Opponents of wood smoke argue remnants of the acrid smoke hang in the air, aggravating people with asthma and other breathing problems.

There's been resistance locally to local wood smoke foes, one reason Dubinski's group is calling for action at the state level.

When Dubinski appealed to Elk Grove Village trustees to reinstate the ban on outdoor fireplaces, he received a resounding "no" from Mayor Craig Johnson.

That would infringe on people's property rights, Johnson said.

"There's probably more smoke put in the air by the California forest fires than would be from any fire pit in the country over 10 years," Johnson said.

Dubinski, however, said it becomes his business when it creeps into his personal space and causes him headaches.

One forum for the debate has been the letters columns of the Daily Herald, where Dubinski and his supporters regularly appear, sparking spirited replies from wood-burning fans.

Residential wood burning can be blamed for about a third of particulate pollution, federal environmental officials estimate.

So why should Dubinski see wood smoke as more of an environmental enemy than exhaust from trucks and cars, which appear to spew more pollution in the Chicago area than fireplaces?

Nationally, cars and trucks make up 21 percent of particulate pollution -- less than wood smoke, Dubinski said.

"I don't smell the diesel from (Route) 53," Dubinski said. "I smell the smoke from these guys wood burning."

How to cut wood smoke pollution

• Convert to gas. Rising natural gas prices have traditionally spurred people to turn to burning wood.

• Use a wood stove made after 1988. They use cleaner burning technology as a result of a federal clean air crackdown.

• Burn clean, dry, seasoned hardwood. Wet wood doesn't burn well and produces more smoke.

• Never burn painted or treated wood, trash or colored paper.

• Keep the stovepipe and chimney clean to prevent the buildup of creosote that can cause chimney fires and noxious emissions.

Source: American Lung Association, Daily Herald interviews

Particulate pollution

• Residential wood burning: 35%

• Other sources: 30%

• Cars and trucks: 21%

• Forest fires: 13%

• Other residential fuels: 1%

Source: EPA