With the holiday season here, we encourage Maricopa County residents and businesses to pay attention to No Burn Day alerts and not burn wood in fireplaces, outdoor fire pits or other wood burning appliances on designated No Burn Days. Lives literally depend on your cooperation.

Maricopa County currently is in attainment with the federal health standard for fine particulate matter, known more commonly as soot. However, this status may change if the county experiences successive exceedances of the standard at any air quality monitor in the Valley.

Three monitors are close to exceeding the standard and have been trending upward over the past three years. If Maricopa County violates the standard, EPA will require development of a plan and implementation of pollution control measures, which will most likely be costly and burdensome, but also necessary to ensure a return to clean, healthful air.

Soot poses serious health risks because the particles are so small (finer than a grain of flour) that they lodge deeply in the lungs when inhaled, where they are then absorbed by the bloodstream. Studies have linked long-term exposure to soot to loss of lung function, bronchitis, asthma, lung disease, heart attacks and increased death rates. Chronic lower respiratory disease is the third leading cause of death in Arizona. Children, older adults and people with existing heart and lung problems are especially sensitive to fine particulate exposure.

Official designation as a problem area for soot, by definition, would mean our local air quality is not sufficiently protective of public health. People will continue to get sick, and some portion of the population will die prematurely as a result.

Health problems caused or worsened by pollution impose large and immediate costs for people and businesses. Students lose time from school and employees lose time from work, reducing productivity. These consequences carry not only financial costs, but also social and emotional costs associated with caring for, and in some cases, losing family members and other loved ones.

The best way you can help protect public health and avoid a violation of the standard, and the incumbent costly sanctions, is simply to not burn wood on designated No Burn Days throughout the winter and especially during the Christmas and New Year’s holidays. Light a candle or use a natural gas fireplace instead. Postpone wood burning for another day.

We don’t relish the role of playing Grinch, but scientific analyses of air pollution data have found very strong evidence that wood smoke is the primary culprit for soot emissions during winter. The analyses further show that the pollution levels for soot are significantly higher on weekends and holidays than during work days. Monitors from Glendale to Tempe have recorded concentrations on Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day in excess of the federal health-based standard.

During the season of giving and caring, you have the power to save lives. On designated No Burn Days, don’t burn wood. For more information and to sign up to receive alerts, go to NoBurn.CleanAirMakeMore.gov.

• Eric Massey is air quality director for the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality. Bill Wiley is director of the Maricopa County Air Quality Department.

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