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Up in Wood Smoke

Residents of Boulder, Colorado take pride in the city’s livability. The town has won “more accolades than any other city in America for its recreation, culture, health, business climate, and overall quality of life.” It has been voted “Number One Best Place to Live” and “Best Overall Place to Live”; it is among “The Best Small Cities” and the “Top Ten Places to Retire”; it is “Number Four Heart Healthiest City”; it is in the “Top Ten of World’s Greener Cities”; it is a city that is “Making a Difference in the Environment”; and it is in the “Top 20 Greenest Spots in the Country.” We have lived in Boulder for eight months, and we can attest that it is beautiful. Unfortunately, the city’s “accolades” neglect a dirty little secret.

We moved to Boulder from Tucson, Arizona after one of us underwent major surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy. We have always been concerned about the environment, but such a serious illness made us more so. Tucson was just too polluted, congested, hot, and stressful to stay. So we looked for a place that was the “anti-Tucson.” Boulder seemed to fill the bill. We could decompress from months of trauma and begin to rebuild our lives.

We rented a downtown apartment in February, on the top floor of an office building.
It was removed enough from the main street to be quiet, a bonus in a college town. From our bedroom window we could see Mt. Sanitas; from our balcony we could admire the spectacular western sky over the eastern plains. If we turned right from the building’s front doors, we could walk to steep and challenging hiking trails that led up into the foothills of the Rocky Mountains; if we turned left, we could enjoy the shops, bookstores, restaurants, and street musicians of the traffic-free Pearl Street Mall. It looked like we had found the perfect place to heal.

The first sign that something was amiss happened a few days after we signed our lease. We noticed a plume of black smoke coming from a chimney on a roof directly below our patio. It turned out that we were next door to a restaurant that used a wood-burning oven, something that the landlord failed to tell us. A few months later, a second wood-burning restaurant opened, with its chimneys on an adjacent roof.

Our dream apartment turned into a nightmare. Every day, beginning in early morning, smoke from the ovens rises in steady plumes above the chimneys. This goes on, with the occasional break, for nearly twelve hours, seven days a week. The smell is so obnoxious that we cannot open windows or use our balcony, and it is so strong that it often permeates our living quarters. Our noses are runny; our throats are sore and scratchy; and we have a hard time breathing.

The two restaurants we have come to despise are named The Kitchen and Salt. Like many businesses in Boulder and quite a few other restaurants, these eateries claim to reflect Boulder’s refined environmental consciousness. The Kitchen says on its website: “The Kitchen believes in protecting our environment. Wind power provides 100 percent of the restaurant’s electricity and we recycle or reuse nearly 100 percent of our discards. All of our paper products and straws are biodegradable. We give the remaining uncooked food and open bottles of wine to our staff at the end of each shift and all of our food discards are composted and often find their way back to the farms they came from.” This eatery has garnered many awards and citations for its commitment to the environment: “West’s Greenest Restaurant” (Sunset magazine, 2008) and Number 6 in “Top 10 Best Eco-friendly Restaurants” (Bon Appetit, 2008). It prominently displays a PACE decal in its window (Boulder County’s Partners for a Clean Environment).

Salt has joined the environmental bandwagon. One reviewer gushed about Salt’s love for Mother Earth: “. . . Salt will walk the sustainability talk,” he says, “. . . [doing] all the little things The Kitch[en] does so well.” Salt’s chef described himself to another reviewer as “Johnny Local,” referring to his use of local organic farm produce. “We’re doing fun, affordable, simple, seasonal food and supporting those who do right by Mother Nature. . . . We’re taking our food away from corporate greed and making good choices by buying as much as we can on a local level.” (This is amusing given that, as one blogger put it, “word on the street is that Salt’s . . .well-established Boulder area chef, and his team of investors, put in a million dollars in their renovation . . . .”—none of this in search of profit, we are to suppose).

While restaurant wood smoke has damaged our quality of life, it is doing much more than this. It is, in fact, a definite and well-established danger to the public’s health. A few examples will suffice. First, wood smoke contains numerous toxic substances, many of which are also found in tobacco smoke. A few of these are chlorinated dioxin, carbon monoxide, methane, volatile organic compounds, nitrogen oxides, and fine particulate matter. Second, some wood smoke components are known carcinogens, including benzene, formaldehyde, and toluene. A google search of “wood smoke and cancer” yields thousands of entries. Third, wood smoke is definitely correlated with many other diseases and health problems, such as asthma, allergies, Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), high blood pressure, strokes, and heart attacks, just to name a few. Children, the elderly, and people with existing lung and other diseases are especially susceptible to the harm done by wood smoke. Wood smoke “should be actively avoided” by such persons, according to the American Lung Association. Fourth, exposure to wood smoke can weaken the immune system, making us more susceptible to disease and weakening our ability to recover from both diseases and treatments such as cancer therapies.

Irony and hypocrisy abound here. These restaurants do not allow smoking. Yet, wood smoke is more dangerous to health than cigarette smoke; it penetrates deeply into the lungs and takes more time to dissipate in the air. It is chemically active in the body forty times longer than tobacco smoke. One study showed that a restaurant that burned wood but was nonsmoking was similar in terms of pollution to a restaurant without wood-burning equipment but which allowed smoking. The chefs claim to be concerned with the environment; one local reviewer has called businesspersons like them “greenpreneurs.” Yet, their kitchen equipment spews dangerous particulate matter into the air hour after hour, year-round (and we won’t even go into how the health of the kitchen workers and patrons is affected by the wood-burning ovens, grills, and rotisseries, or the sources of all those truckloads of wood). The owner of the building that houses one of the restaurants is a rich and generous philanthropist who donated millions of dollars for the building of a first-class cancer center in Boulder. How is it that he can condone the releasing of carcinogenic smoke into the town’s atmosphere? We spoke with him, and he seemed oblivious to the problem.

We know that, other things equal, wood smoke raises the mortality rate. As researcher Peter Montague tells us, “To summarize bluntly, any increase in fine particles in the atmosphere kills someone. The victims remain nameless, but they have been deprived of life all the same.” Tens of thousands of people in the United States die every year from particulate pollution, to which wood smoke is an important contributor. Worldwide, the World Heath Organization estimates that there are nearly three million premature deaths worldwide from exposure to wood smoke.

We have complained to public officials in Boulder, and while some have not even bothered to return our calls (one is the city’s Environmental Affairs Manager), others have done what they could. One agency asked The Kitchen to clean its word-burning equipment so that the emitted smoke met the city’s opacity requirement. However, in the absence of a prohibition of the use of wood-burning devices, something that England enacted in 1956, Boulder cannot prevent their use, which means that heath-debilitating smoke will continue to permeate the city’s air. Besides The Kitchen and Salt, there are at least half a dozen more restaurants that use wood-burning equipment, all in an area about one mile square. We have begun to publicize the dangers as best we can and will continue to do so, in the hope that sooner or later citizen complaints will generate official action.

Peasants in poor countries cut down trees for wood fires to heat their homes and cook their food. This does tremendous damage to the environment. The peasants suffer disproportionately from the smoke-induced health problems described above; there is even a name for one infection common among them–“hut lung”). The deforestation that provides the wood makes their surroundings more susceptible to floods, mudslides, and drought. However, those who cut down the trees and burn the wood are desperately poor and have no real choice in the matter. Our restaurateurs, on the other hand, do have perfectly viable and probably cheaper choices. They do not have to use wood-burning appliances. We cannot think of a single justification for them. We doubt that many patrons could tell the wood-smoked food from any other. And even supposing that food cooked with a wood fire tasted marginally better, so what? The taste differential cannot possibly justify using wood when there are such obvious health hazards. What excuse is there for Boulder or any other city to continue to allow restaurants to employ this dirty, dangerous, and unnecessary cooking practice?

Karen Korenoski and Michael Yates live in Boulder. They can be reached at mikedjyates@msn.com.

The health information in this essay is taken from the many sources listed on the excellent website http://www.burningissues.org.

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