For two years, the state has kept filters from a Greenville air-quality project — a project that tried to analyze wood-smoke pollutants in the air — nestled in a freezer.
Soon, it will finally send those samples off to a lab.
Next winter, the Maine Department of Environmental Protection plans to replicate the Greenville study in Bethel after hearing stories about a consistent smoke haze there.
In January 2015, expect another attempt at cracking down on wood smoke by the Maine Legislature. The last attempt failed five months ago; the attempt before that was vetoed by the governor.
Gov. Paul LePage warned that suggesting we burn less wood could “signal that our proud history may be waning.”
Wood smoke as a public health issue hasn’t gained much traction. This is Maine; Maine is wood.
Yet, according to Ed Miller, senior vice president for policy at the American Lung Association of the Northeast, “It’s actually more dangerous on a dose-by-dose basis than cigarette smoke.”
Miller added, “The problem is sort of compounded, though, that unlike cigarette smoke … we’re at a point where there’s still a lot of mystique about wood smoke. The smell of wood smoke in the air, ‘Oh, smells like fall.’ People wouldn’t walk into a room and go, ‘Oh, it smells like cigarette smoke, it’s so nice in here.’”
Clearly, something is in the air.
But how bad is it?
Greenville and Bethel could answer that.
Ernest Grolimund began a one-man crusade to get Maine to take the issue seriously when his neighbor began burning with both an indoor wood boiler and a wood stove in 2007.
“Immediately, my eyes were stinging and I was having allergy reactions,” said Grolimund, of Waterville. “I knew as an engineer, right away, this was bad.”
His daughter had an asthma attack. His neighbor had a heart attack. He attributes both to wood smoke.
As heating oil prices rise, more Mainers have turned to wood as their primary heat source, according to the U.S. Census. It nudged up to 13.7 percent of homes last year, from 6.4 percent in 2000. Even more use it on an occasional basis.
Grolimund worries about health effects if that trend continues or if Maine faces a smoky spike after a natural disaster.
“What would happen if there were a blizzard or a blackout and everybody went back to using their stoves?” he said.
Armed with detailed charts, stats and pictures, largely data from other states, he pitched Maine Senate President Justin Alfond, D-Portland, last month on a new bill to curb wood smoke.
Alfond said no.
“It definitely is something that, intuitively, we’ve all been around a campfire when that massive amount of smoke comes into your face and your eyes start to hurt and your clothes smell. You move; [you] don’t want to be downwind,” Alfond said.
But he wants to see more than Grolimund at his door.
“I need to see broader support,” Alfond said. “I need to see the medical community put this as a top priority. I would need to see folks within the wood industry being interested in discussing this and understanding how we can reduce the health effects. The idea of living in a state with so much wood, with wood being such a big part of our history, the idea of banning it just like that, I don’t see that process being successful.”
So far, the effort has had sporadic results.
Rep. Linda Sanborn, D-Gorham, sponsored a bill last session that would have aligned the smoke standards for wood stoves with the current standards for outdoor wood boilers.
A retired family physician, Sanborn had been approached by Miller at the Lung Association to collaborate on the legislation. When its chances didn’t look good out of committee, she pulled the bill.
“I think part of [the reluctance in Augusta] is money,” Sanborn said. “I think part of it is our forestry industry. We have lots and lots of wood in Maine, so it seems kind of anti-Maine to propose a bill where you can’t burn wood. I always start out my testimony about it saying, ‘I burn wood.’”
The strategy next time, she said, might be to link legislation with a rebate program offered in other states — rewarding people who turn in old, inefficient stoves and put the money toward new, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency-certified stoves.
“The risks are known, and are significant, so it’s worth continuing to try again with the bill and make it more reasonable and come back with it,” Sanborn said.
In July 2010, the Maine Legislature did vote to establish a wood stove replacement fund, targeting pre-1988 stoves. The fund didn’t have any rules outlining how it would work until this week, when the Maine DEP sent them off to the Secretary of State’s Office to finally make them official.
There wasn’t a rush; the fund also didn’t have any money.
“We’re supposed to go and find money from whatever source we can, besides the taxpayers,” said Louis Fontaine, compliance coordinator for the DEP’s Bureau of Air Quality. “So far, we haven’t found anything.”
Fontaine said a replacement program for old wood boilers has suffered a similar fate.
“The hope was that we could convince somebody who’s had a big violation, who’s had to pay a penalty, to convince them to have their fines put into these accounts,” Fontaine said. “But we’ve never been able to convince them to put the money there.”
New Hampshire and Massachusetts both have active wood stove rebate programs funded by fine money. Eight states also have taken some specific actions related to wood smoke, according to the EPA. In Washington, a fee is added to the sale of every wood stove and boiler and used to fund air quality education. Utah created a “Red Light, Green Light” program: On poor air days, a red light day is declared and no residential or commercial wood burning is allowed; inspectors drive around looking for smoke and fining violators.
Emissions such as wood smoke are measured in two sizes: PM10, or particulate matter 10, is 10 microns or fewer in diameter, tiny enough to be breathed in and make it past nose hairs. Even smaller PM2.5 particles can “get into the very smallest recesses of the lungs and are actually more of a health problem,” said Andy Johnson, acting division director for the DEP’s Air Quality Assessment Division.
Particulate matter in the winter often comes from wood smoke, and particulate matter in the summer from traffic and out-of-state forest fires. The state measures for both sizes with monitors throughout Maine, including Country Kitchen in Lewiston and Rumford Avenue in Rumford.
For the past decade, the amounts of both size levels have been going down statewide.
But that’s not to say that in pockets of the state levels aren’t sometimes high, Johnson said. The Greenville project was an attempt to get at one of those pockets, but it proved less than ideal. Oil prices that winter leveled off, so not as many people burned wood as anticipated. Also, Moosehead Lake had a greater effect than officials thought it would, allowing the air to more widely disperse and slip away instead of capturing it.
“We really need to be in a deeper, more confined valley situation,” he said.
“It’s just obvious to the technical folks here there’s a lot of information that we don’t have,” Johnson said. “The whole part of this study was designed to provide the core, technical, scientific basis for going forward with any other kind of regulatory approaches to deal with wood smoke.”
Miller at the American Lung Association said smoke toxins too microscopic to be seen have the worst health effects, slipping from the lungs into the bloodstream and potentially leading to heart attacks, heart disease and lung disease.
He likened the uphill battle for raising awareness around wood smoke to secondhand smoke in the 1960s — with the twist that wood, unlike cigarettes, has upsides.
“[Given] the cost of oil for people to heat their homes, and the low-income folks we have in this state, [legislators] are very concerned about doing anything that would cause people more hardship, economically,” Miller said. “We certainly understand that — it’s not good for your health to be cold. We get that piece.”
Patrick Strauch, executive director of the Maine Forest Products Council, said 20 percent of Maine’s energy comes from wood and 2 percent of wood harvested in Maine goes directly to heating homes.
“It’s a [wood stove] siting issue and it’s a technology issue: Do you have the most efficient technology in your home?” Strauch said.
Newer, federal EPA-certified wood stoves burn hotter, with less smoldering, and are up to 50 percent more energy efficient, burning one-third less wood, with 70 percent less particle pollution, according to the EPA.
The federal agency is working on updating and tightening its wood-stove smoke emissions standards for the first time since 1988. Those regulations are expected to come out next year and will apply only to new stoves.
Also, sometime next year, the state will get results from the Greenville project.
It’s all not fast enough for Grolimund in Waterville.
“All smoke is dangerous; it’s unhealthy,” he said. “Old tradition is in conflict with new science.”