Twin Cities environmental group wants to ban bonfires, AXE body spray, dryer sheets, saunas

David Jole, Star Tribune

David Jole, Star Tribune

Take Back the Air casts a wide net of grievances.

Most have to do with commonplace, long-established practices that Minnesotans hold near and dear or don't give a second thought. Not only is this air quality group crusading against dryer sheets and perfumes, it has declared war on backyard bonfires and Nordic saunas.

Lead organizer Julie Mellum of Edina, who suffers from asthma, has been fighting to restrict recreational fires for the past 16 years. She has a point. Wood smoke diffuses toxic chemicals, like benzene, lead, mercury, and dioxins, which can be especially rough on children and the elderly.

But while countless other things also pollute the air, including cars, factories, farms, and naturally occurring forest fires, Mellum and Take Back the Air have set their sights on everyday, much-beloved targets. Mellum knows most air-quality organizations avoid things like perfume and wood smoke. 

"I think they're afraid to, because it's politically unpopular," Mellum says. "Well, we're not afraid to."

Four years ago, Take Back the Air asked the city of Edina to ban wood fires in public parks, and to crack down on people who allowed the smoke from their fires to drift toward nearby houses. Predictably, those who called in smoke complaints against their neighbors did not receive an influx of invitations to block parties. Edina sided against Take Back the Air.

More recently, the group has been trying to get the Minneapolis Public Schools to prohibit perfumes and body sprays.

Mellum, along with a handful of other activists, likened the use of chemically complex fragrances to smoking on campus during an October 18 school board meeting.

"In discussing ways to close the achievement gap and enhance learning, one issue is consistently overlooked," Mellum told school board members. "Toxic classroom air due to the mix of scented products on groups of people. It is appalling and tragic to allow this to continue unchallenged."

Banning Axe body spray from public schools has been proposed before. But no one has ever been able to convince teenage boys that they can’t marinate themselves in what they believe to be a hormone-stimulating alternative to showering.

Now, Take Back the Air has a new objective: ensuring that a Minneapolis sauna co-op wilts in early development.

The 612 Sauna Society is currently crowdfunding a mobile sauna that will someday travel throughout Minneapolis, bringing the Nordic tradition of sweating on a hot bench to the modern masses. For Take Back the Air, such a project bears an unacceptable risk. In mid-November, Mellum asked the Minneapolis city council to withhold its support.

John Pederson, 612 Sauna Society founder, says Mellum’s been sharing her objections with everybody but him. If she contacted him directly, Pederson says, he would tell her all about the proprietary, smokeless Kuuma stove that he plans to use.

The Kuuma stove, manufactured in Tower, Minnesota by Daryl Lamppa, produces 10 times less smoke than the current EPA standard for wood-burning stoves.

“Even if we weren't going to the trouble and expense of using the most efficient sauna stove there is, a community sauna greatly reduces the number of private saunas, and thus the overall amount of fire,” Pederson says. “Furthermore, most people that build their own will not go to the trouble or expense to purchase the most efficient stove, or take the care we will to burn it at optimal efficiency. In other words, if Julie really cares about reducing emissions and wood smoke in this city, she should join us on the sauna bench this winter!”