In the cold winter months, some families throughout the Monadnock Region turn to their wood burning stove to quickly and efficiently heat their homes. However, research has shown that wood smoke is the largest contributor to the city of Keene’s less than ideal air quality conditions.

According to Environmental Studies professor Dr. Nora Traviss, five years ago the New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services (NHDES) improved their method of air monitoring (done at a fixed location on Water St.), which allowed them to see the 24-hour hourly average of fine particulate matter in the air as opposed to a snapshot taken once every seven days.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency’s website, “particulate matter is a complex mixture of extremely small particles and liquid droplets. Particle pollution is made up of a number of components, including acids (such as nitrates and sulfates), organic chemicals, metals, and soil or dust particles.”

More specifically, fine particles are found in smoke and haze.

“In switching the method, it came to everyone’s attention that fine particulate matter was more elevated than previously thought,” Traviss shared.

Vanessa Brooks / Equinox Staff

Vanessa Brooks / Equinox Staff

She continued, “that makes sense for thinking about once every seven days to every ten minutes, you’re getting a better and fuller picture,” said Traviss.

Traviss explained that through research, it has been determined that fine particulate matter caused by wood smoke does pose health risks.

“The small particles in wood smoke can be inhaled deep into the lungs, collecting in the tiny air sacs where oxygen enters the blood. Some particles are so small they enter the bloodstream. Inhalation of small particles can cause heart problems, irritate lungs and eyes, trigger headaches and allergic reactions and worsen respiratory diseases such as asthma, emphysema and bronchitis,” according to the Southwest Regional Planning Committee’s website.

While there are health-related concerns surrounding the issue of Keene’s air quality, there is also a regulatory compliance related concern.

“If the levels of fine particulate matter are high, Keene could have implications for the county being out of compliance with the Clean Air Act, then a number of consequences can happen, none of which would be good for local businesses or for even the organizations at Keene State,” Traviss said.

Students in Traviss’ class are working on a project collecting data through air monitoring.  Senior Rachel Guerin explained that she and fellow classmates will go out at night when most people are burning wood, from around 9:30 until 12 or 1 a.m. They use a Thermo Scientific pDR-1500 instrument to measure the concentrations of particulate matter in four different neighborhoods; East Keene, Court Washington area, high school area and then the middle school area.

The project has not yet reached the point of analysis but Guerin said the process so far has been informative.

“[This project] has been eye-opening. I didn’t know a lot about air quality before starting this project, and I’ve also learned how an issue can involve so many different organizations and how laws and regulations that the government put in place don’t always work for everyone,” Geurin explained.

To try and combat the air quality issues in Keene, Senator Molly Kelly implemented a task force two years ago. The task force is led by the Southwest Regional Planning Commission, Cheshire Medical Center, the NHDES, the city of Keene and KSC.  According to Traviss, there has been an extensive outreach program to the community to educate residents about  the right way to burn wood, to encourage them to purchase cleaner more efficient wood stoves that create a lot less fine particulate matter and to make sure they’re not burning wet wood.

Traviss said wood stove smoke can release levoglucosan, a sugar anhydride found in wood smoke that has been directly related high levels of fine particulate matter. She said this has been done through public presentations to the community, some public service announcements and N.H. newspaper articles.

In addition to education, Traviss said a wood stove change was implemented in 2009, where the city tried to encourage people to swap out stoves and residents could get a voucher for a $1,000 credit toward the purchase of a new, more efficient, stove.

While the wood burning stoves have been directly linked to the air quality in Keene, the meteorology and location of the city are also contributing factors.

“The elevated levels of particulate matter are seen during air inversion events.  That’s when you have the right temperature and wind conditions, basically cold calm nights where there’s no wind and the ground is really cold and the warm pollution just migrates to the ground and gets trapped there.  We have a number of air inversions because we live in a valley and we’re prone to having a lot of cold days in the winter with no wind,” Traviss said.

On the days when Keene is experiencing air inversion events, Traviss urged  residents and even off-campus students with a wood burning stove in their home to not burn wood on these days.

Traviss said she wishes there was a better, less voluntary way to inform people about air inversion events in Keene.

Campus Manager of Environmental Health and Safety for physical plant, Sylvie Rice, said that she informs the KSC community about air inversion days but students have not been yet included.

“I get alerts from the state when there is going to be a bad air quality day, when they can predict it and usually I forward that information to all faculty and staff to alert them that the levels are unusually high. I haven’t been sending that to students because students emails are very closely protected so I can post things online on MyKSC, but I have not been doing that and perhaps I should,” Rice said.

Senior Rachel Guerin said even though the air quality issue may seem like it is out of the hands of students at KSC, they are still impacted and can help in small ways.

“Even if students are not burning wood knowing that there is a problem can help us.  Some people that go to Keene State have relatives or their families live in Keene and they can inform them of the issue.  Having poor air days affects everyone, especially at risk populations like the elderly, children and people with asthma and heart related issues. Everyone needs to be involved because the air is the ultimate common, everyone breathes,” Guerin said.


Rachel Heard can be contacted at

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