Stanford study shows wood smoke can harm the brain

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A new study released by Stanford shows the effects of breathing wood smoke may not just be in your lungs. (KGO-TV )

A new study released by Stanford shows the effects of breathing wood smoke may not just be in your lungs.

Local air managers said the new findings should change the way Bay Area residents think about their fireplaces, as they met with reporters at California Pacific Medical Center's California St. campus.

For some, the devastating North Bay wildfires brought a heightened awareness of how exposure to smoke affects the body -- even when that smoke is just from a neighbor's fireplace.

"I notice that my workouts are shorter or I'm not able to take as deep breaths," said 27-year-old Jojo Ho, who runs every day. "And sometimes there even is that little twinge of chest pain."

Though it's long been known that wood smoke is bad for the lungs, Stanford researchers have found it's also bad for the brain, even in young people like Ho.

"We're finding in young adults that there may be an increased risk of psychiatric problems like depression," said Stanford pediatrics professor Eric Zee. And in kids and teens, "it also affects grades and test scores and things like that."

Zee said the tiny particles from smoke can inflame the lungs, and in turn cause inflammation all over the body, including in the brain. The study found regular exposure to smoke can speed up the brain's aging process, even in kids.

"With neurological problems in growth and development and in one's later years," said Zee.

For the Bay Area Air Quality Management District, the study adds more fuel to the fire behind the years-long campaign to snuff out wood burning, especially on Spare the Air days.

"We have some of the most progressive regulations on burning in the nation," said the district's meteorology and measurements director, Eric Stevenson.

Those regulations, he said, are built around protecting even the most sensitive individuals: those who are very young, very old, or have medical conditions affecting their breathing. But he said the new findings indicate those individuals may not be the only ones who need to worry.

"That's the importance of this study," he said. "That it isn't just sensitive individuals. It's all of us."

It's why the district is enlisting young people like Ho to help spread the word.

"If we just think before we burn, that could really change our neighborhoods," Ho said.

Burning wood is illegal during winter Spare the Air alerts, but the district offers incentives all year round to get rid of your fireplace, or convert it to gas.

"Don't have a fire in your fireplace," at your next holiday party, said Stevenson. "Turn on your TV on that yule log, right?"

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