Home fires may not burn as often under strict new air-quality laws

While stopping short of advising Bay Area residents to hold their breath, clean air experts say they expect more pollution warnings this winter as stricter federal air-quality standards kick in.

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regulations, poised to take effect in December, would cut by half the amount of miniscule particles — known as particulate matter — allowed in the air in a 24-hour period before an advisory must be issued, according to experts.

Wood-burning fireplaces and vehicle emissions — especially on cold, still nights — are the primary dangers, said Terry Lee, spokeswoman for Breath California, a non-profit formerly associated with the American Lung Association of California. “It has been shown in numerous studies that when we exceed federal and state air quality standards for particulate matter, there is an increase in respiratory stress, hospital admissions and even premature death” in extreme cases, Lee said.

The more rigorous standard is likely to trigger multiple air advisories, unseen in the Bay Area since 2002, Bay Area Air Quality Management District records show. Ordinances promoted by the district and adopted by many Bay Area cities in past years have required new and sometimes remodeled homes to have low- or no-emission fireplaces, which has reduced pollution noticeably, said Luna Salaver, district spokeswoman.

Natural filters in the human nose and lungs are helpless against the microscopic particles, which embed themselves in the respiratory system, Lee said. “The particles can’t be coughed out,” she said. The most vulnerable include children, seniors and those with asthma, emphysema or other breathing problems.

The holidays are favorite times to stoke the hearth with family around, but with 1.5 million homes with fireplaces in the Bay Area, clean air experts are calling on residents to abstain from lighting up, or show restraint.

The district’s winter Spare the Air Tonight program will run Nov. 20 through Feb. 16, 2007. On days when pollution exceeds the new 35 micrograms per cubic meter level, a warning will be issued, officials said.

ecarpenter@examiner.com

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