Are beach fire pits hazardous to the environment and health? Regulators, residents debate adding new rules (Photos, Poll)

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How harmful are beach fires to your health?

That question has been at the center of an intense debate in Southern California beach cities.

After first proposing an outright ban, the South Coast Air Quality Management District – or AQMD – is now considering restrictions it says will make beach fires safer.

However, there’s disagreement about just how unhealthy burning wood really is.

'It's good, safe family fun'

The beach fire says “Southern California” almost as much as the surfboard. On a recent chilly evening, dozens of teenagers huddled around fire pits in Huntington Beach.

At sunset, 17-year-old Sidney Young was roasting S’mores with a group of classmates from Apple Valley. She’s been coming here as long as she can remember.

“I feel like these fire pits are a big part of the culture down here,” said Young. “They’re a big part of the lifestyle.”

And teenagers there. Lisa Skein has been coming here her whole life. She lives in Redlands, but makes it a point to bring her kids to the fire pits several times a year.

“It’s good, safe, family fun,” said Skein. “The kids are roasting marshmallows instead of getting into trouble. Everybody gets along with each other. It’s a wonderful environment. It’s good for your kids.”

But what about the air they’re breathing? There are two rows of fire pits, and the smoke is thick. After only a few minutes, our clothes reek.

Skein says she’s not worried.

“No, I don’t think it’s that harmful,” she said.

Lung Association says beach fires are a 'very serious issue'

The American Lung Association in California is one of many groups that have been sounding alarm bells about beach fires.

“It is a very serious issue,” said Bonnie Holmes-Gen, the lung association’s senior policy director. “It’s more than just an annoying haze. It is something people need to be very concerned about.”

She says when we breathe in smoke from beach fires, we’re inhaling tiny particulates, which can be especially harmful to teenagers.

“Their lungs are still growing and developing,” said Holmes-Gen. “So they are a very sensitive group.”

AQMD has studied fire pits at 5 beaches since March

AQMD Spokesman Sam Atwood says preliminary results show beach fires could be hazardous not just for beachgoers, but also for those who live nearby. The study found that the levels of fine particulates around fire pits and in nearby communities exceeded EPA guidelines for short-term exposure. In one night, a single beach fire can emit the same amount of harmful particulate matter as a heavy-duty truck driving 564 miles, the study found.

“It basically raised a flag and said this is something we need to address and we need to make sure we have precautions in place to make sure we protect public health,” said Atwood.

Julia Lester, PhD says the AQMD’s study doesn’t confirm the source of the higher particulate levels.

“There’s nothing in the data that we see that would allow you to say: ‘This portion is from that wood smoke,’” said Lester, standing next to a row of fire pits in Huntington Beach.

Lester spent 14 years at the AQMD. For most of that time, she led its particulate matter section. Now she’s working as an environmental consultant for the city of Huntington Beach, which wants to keep the fire rings.

She says there are many sources of particulate matter at the beach aside from beach fires. There’s the blowing sand, nearby BBQ’s and the PCH.

“We’re standing here right next to Pacific Coast Highway, where there’s up to 50,000 cars and trucks per day,” said Lester.

She also faults the AQMD’s methodology and says the process has been rushed.

“Frankly, it’s not the standard procedure that we did when I was at the air district,” she said.

While acknowledging he doesn’t have Lester’s scientific credentials, Atwood defends the study. He says the AQMD is confident the particulate matter is coming from beach fires.

The spokesman says the agency's air monitors didn’t show an increase in particulates during the morning and afternoon rush hours, peak times for traffic, but not for beach fires.

“We saw one peak corresponding to when the beach fire pits are in their maximum use,” said Atwood.

Loud outcry when the AQMD proposed an all-out ban on fire pits.

The county board of supervisors in Los Angeles and Orange County have passed resolutions opposing the ban, along with many cities.

The agency’s new proposal is a compromise. Cities can keep their fire pits as long as they are at least 100 feet apart and 700 feet from homes. They’ll also be encouraged to burn natural gas or propane instead of wood.

Even though most of her city’s fire pits will likely be spared, Huntington Beach mayor Connie Boardman is still critical of the AQMD’s approach. She says the agency started its study after already deciding fire pits were dangerous.

“I feel like the whole process was backwards,” said Boardman, who is also a biologist.

She says the agency has never been able to show that her residents’ health is impacted.

“The politics drove the science, said Boardman. “Science didn’t drive policy.”

The air quality board is scheduled to vote on the new rules at a meeting on July 12.

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