Friday, October 03, 2008

Survey raises wood-heating concerns

Portland Press Herald

This winter, many Mainers will use outdated stoves or heat underinsulated buildings, a study reports.

By TUX TURKEL, Staff Writer
October 3, 2008
Nearly half of Maine households plan to burn wood to help stay warm this winter, but many will be using outdated, less-efficient stoves or heating buildings that aren't insulated to modern standards, according to initial findings of a new statewide survey on energy use.

The state-funded study, done for the American Lung Association of Maine and the Maine Centers for Disease Control, will be used in part to study the degree to which air pollution from increased wood burning might be harmful to public health in Maine.

On a national level, the American Lung Association has been expressing concern about the potential impact of wood smoke – especially from fireplaces – on people with asthma and pulmonary disease.

Initially, researchers wanted to explore possible links between increased wood burning, air pollution and public health.

But the survey was expanded to gather other energy-related information and to act as a baseline to study fuel burning, weatherization efforts and public health impacts in different parts of the state.

"We wanted to get a sense of how behaviors were changing in response to high energy prices," said Norman Anderson, the association's environmental health adviser. The survey of more than 3,000 Maine households will be complete by the end of the month.

Initial results were scheduled to be presented today at the lung association's annual meeting by MaryEllen FitzGerald, president of Critical Insights, the Portland research firm that is conducting the survey.

Record oil prices earlier this year set off a stampede to buy stoves and boilers that burn wood and pellets.

Mainers who burned wood in past years also have reportedly been reinstalling older units.

That concerns health officials, who say they recall neighborhoods choked with wood smoke in the 1980s, when energy costs soared.

The survey, Anderson said, could help track health risk factors over time.

Among those risk factors is the amount of wood being burned, the equipment being used and the possible improper weatherization of homes, which can lead to mold, carbon monoxide buildup and poor ventilation.

The survey also asked about preventative measures. Most respondents said they did not plan to have a professional energy audit, in which a trained contractor uses special equipment to find air leaks and heat loss.

More than half of those surveyed said they didn't see the need for an audit.

That suggests that people think they've done enough to weatherize their homes, even if they've taken only small measures, or that those polled may not be familiar with energy audits.

"If you don't know what it is," said Kevin Fay, the research director at Critical Insights, "it's hard to see the value of it."

Despite concerns about air quality, the survey findings generally are consistent with what officials are seeing and represent a positive direction for Maine, according to John Kerry, the state's energy director.

The move toward greater wood burning is cutting the state's dependence on costly, imported oil and reducing emissions associated with climate change, Kerry said.

The responses to weatherization questions, however, suggest that many Mainers might not appreciate the difference between taking elementary steps to tighten their homes and the more subsantial savings that can be realized through comprehensive insulation and air sealing.

"There's a distinct difference between winterization and weatherization," he said.

Staff Writer Tux Turkel can be contacted at 791-6462 or at:

Copyright © 2008 Blethen Maine Newspapers

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