April is finally here! Now that we’re putting away our woolly scarves and getting back into the garden, many of us are preparing to turn off our furnaces and put our wood-burning stoves to bed until next fall. And as those stoves go dormant, it’s a great time to think about upgrading to an appliance that burns more efficiently.
Some pretty heated arguments (no pun intended) have been made for and against wood stoves in letters to the editor. Many people see wood as a cheap and renewable energy source — although it could be argued that firewood prices around here are gaspingly high (about double what’s charged in rural Quebec, for example). Some Valley residents are gasping for another reason: wood burning has a seriously detrimental effect on air quality, which in turn, threatens our well-being and impacts health care costs.
If you’ve been following the wood stove debate at all, you’ll have heard of PM 2.5, particulate matter found in wood smoke. This stuff is inhaled deeply into the lungs, where it can wreak real havoc – and no one is immune. On this subject, the science has been in for quite some time. In 2011, a Scientific American article had this to say:
“…(R)ecent research raises new concerns over the toxic substances borne aloft in wood smoke.
The tiny airborne specks of pollution known as particulate matter, or PM, produced by wood-burning stoves appear to be especially harmful to human health. Small enough to penetrate deep into the lungs, they carry high levels of chemicals linked to cardiopulmonary diseases and cancer, and they can damage DNA and activate genes in hazardous ways comparable to cigarette smoke and car exhaust… Wood smoke can worsen asthma, and is especially harmful to children and older people. It also has been linked to respiratory infections, adverse changes to the immune system, and early deaths among people with cardiovascular or lung problems.”
The particular topography of the Comox Valley makes it hard for residents to escape the impacts of wood smoke. In February 2016, Dr. Charmaine Enns, the medical health officer for the North Island, was quoted thus in the Vancouver Sun:
“… the annual wintertime combo of wood heat and weather inversions creates spikes in particulate matter in the area from November to February when valleys are capped shut by a layer of cold air… With no industrial sources nearby, it’s clear that burning wood at home is the cause… (T)here is no healthy level of air pollution. And exposure over time does impact chronic disease progression.”
The Sun article noted that provincial and municipal incentives had led to the upgrade of over 6,000 stoves since 2008. However, stove efficiency wasn’t the only issue. Of the homeowner rebate programs, it observed, “… none of that matters if people burn garbage, plastics, treated and painted wood, rubber, plywood, particleboard, wet wood or salty beach wood.”
The Canadian Lung Association is explicit about the dangerous substances found in wood smoke – carbon monoxide, hydrocarbons, formaldehyde, dioxins, and benzene, to name just a few. The Lung Association recommends that wood not be burned at all in a residential setting, but recognizes that there won’t be wholesale uptake on that advice. It offers a sensible list of measures that can be taken to lessen the impact of wood-burning, viewable here: https://www.lung.ca/news/advocacy-tools/our-position-statements/residential-wood-burning
Courtenay city residents might be interested to know that local, real-time data is available via an air quality monitoring station at Courtenay Elementary School. The graphs show some alarming spikes in particulates in the air recently. See for yourself: http://www.env.gov.bc.ca/epd/bcairquality/readings/map/station.html#E285829
Meanwhile, the Comox Valley Regional District has launched a survey “…to understand how residents heat their homes and to better understand their perceptions of local air quality and wood burning practices.” We encourage you to take the brief online survey (and by the way, you might win a $250 gift card from Quality Foods). Here’s the link: https://cvrd.checkbox.ca/Residential-Heating.aspx .
The CVRD is also offering a rebate program for homeowners who want to upgrade their wood stoves to a more efficient model. Fortis BC and BC Hydro are offering their own incentives for people who want to switch to other heat energy sources. Here’s where you find that info: https://www.comoxvalleyrd.ca/services/environment/air-quality/wood-stove-exchange-program .
Last but not least, we have a really excellent resource that’s made available by Breathe Clean Air Comox Valley, who recently gave a public presentation that was a real eye-opener. Not only is their website comprehensive and well-researched, but it offers solutions: http://breathecleanair.ca/resources/
It doesn’t make sense to talk about the dangers of cigarette smoke or car exhaust while ignoring the fact that wood smoke from chimneys and backyard burning present the same dangers. Let’s take advantage of the coming warm weather months to see what we can do to improve air quality in the Valley and safeguard the health of our families. We’ll all breathe a little easier as a result.