Blame Wood Burning Stoves For Winter Air Pollution And Health Threats

Blame Wood Burning Stoves For Winter Air Pollution And Health ThreatsWood smoke may smell good, but it is not good for you. (Shutterstock)

It may be natural, but there’s nothing safe or environmentally sound about heating your home with wood.

The World Health Organization has ranked air pollution and climate change as the top health threat for 2019. One in nine deaths around the world are due to air pollution.

In Canada, air pollution kills nine times more people than automobile accidents. My own research shows that in rural British Columbia the main source of winter air pollution is residential wood burning, and that it is mostly being ignored and rarely monitored by government.

Health hazard

Wood smoke may smell good, but it is not good for you.

The main threat comes from the cocktail of tiny particles and droplets that are about 2.5 microns in diameter (also called PM2.5). Due to their size, they easily work their way into our lungs, bloodstream, brain and other organs, triggering asthma attacks, allergic responses, heart attacks and stroke.

Chronic exposure to PM2.5 is linked to heart disease, lung cancer in non-smokers, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, Type II diabetes and dementia.

Wood smoke affects everyone, but children are especially vulnerable in part because their respiratory systems are under development. Pregnant women exposed to wood smoke may have children with smaller lungs, impaired immune systems, decreased thyroid function and changes to brain structure that may contribute to difficulties with self control. Children who are hospitalized for lower respiratory tract infections are more likely to have a wood stove in the house, although other factors may also play a role.

The elderly are also at risk. A recent study of people living in B.C., in Kamloops, Prince George, Courtenay and the Comox Valley, showed that wood stove pollution significantly increased the rate of heart attacks in people over 65.

And that nice smell? It comes from benzene, a carcinogen (cancer-causing substance), and acrolein.

With the dozens of toxic and carcinogenic chemicals in wood smoke, it’s inconsistent for governments to ban smoking and vaping in public places while ignoring the smoke from wood stoves and fireplaces.

Neither sustainable nor carbon neutral

Burning wood for energy releases more carbon than burning coal and it is speeding up climate warming. It also releases black carbon, a powerful short-lived pollutant, that can accelerate the melting and retreat of glaciers.

Blame Wood Burning Stoves For Winter Air Pollution And Health ThreatsPollution from wood fires can become trapped in a valley when warm air holds cold air close to the ground. S/V Moonrise/Wikimedia, CC BY-SA

There are alternatives. For everyday heating, mini-split air source heat pumps are an excellent option. They are often three to four times more efficient than electric baseboard heaters and can work in colder climates. For example, the community of Skidegate in Haida Gwaii placed heat pumps in every house, reducing the use of wood for home heating.

Efficient propane stoves and heaters are an excellent complement to heat pumps and can provide top-up heating on very cold days as well as backup heating during power outages.

Most regional and municipal governments in B.C. have been reluctant to deal with these issues, and tend to focus on wood stove exchange programs as the solution. Based on my current research, the vocal response by the wood-burning industry and its customers often drowns out reasoned discussion.

The B.C. Lung Association has also been a strong advocate of wood stove exchange programs. But even the cleanest, highest level of eco-certified wood stoves generate more particulate matter per hour than 18 newer diesel passenger cars — and the wood stove may be right beside you.

Citizen science is a gamechanger

Concerned citizens have set-up an extensive and a growing network of low-cost air quality monitors made by PurpleAir. Kamloops, for example, with a topography that tends to trap air pollution from heavy industry and residential wood burning, has 30 of these wifi-enabled, real-time sensors, as do hundreds of other communities around the world.

These monitors show a distinct and troublesome pattern. The clear “signature” of wood burning shows that many rural B.C. communities often have winter air pollution levels that far exceed those seen in larger cities like Victoria and Vancouver. Some of the sensors register air quality readings that rival bad air days in China and India. Wood smoke is creating hot spots that expose people to levels of air pollution not normally recorded by provincial air quality monitors.

Wood smoke, and the cultural and social practices that allow it to be generated without much regulation and control, operates in a vacuum where preconceptions, origin stories and strong emotions impair action. We need another narrative.

Lack of government action to deal with this problem encourages people to ignore this evidence and to underestimate the risk. Burning wood deprives people of the right to breathe clean air in their own homes, and it ultimately represents an uncontrolled form of secondhand smoke exposure with broad implications.The Conversation

About The Author

Michael D. Mehta, Professor, Department of Geography and Environmental Studies, Thompson Rivers University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Related Books

English Afrikaans Arabic Chinese (Simplified) Chinese (Traditional) Dutch Filipino French German Hindi Indonesian Italian Japanese Korean Malay Persian Portuguese Russian Spanish Swahili Swedish Thai Turkish Urdu Vietnamese

SOLUTIONS

Default Image
Passive housing cuts costs – and global warming
by Alex Kirby
Buildings which heat and cool themselves – passive housing – save householders money and cut greenhouse gas emissions.
Print Friendly
Solar lamps light up more African nights
by Paul Brown
Solar lamps are shining more brightly in Africa, tackling poverty, ill-health and natural hazards, thanks to Chinese…
Print Friendly
GMO crops could expect a brighter future
by Paul Brown
Genetically modified (GMO) crops remain controversial, but scientists still have faith that they will help both to…
Print Friendly
Planting trees will not slow global warming
by Tim Radford
Nothing, not even the creation of huge plantations of trees to absorb carbon dioxide, is a viable alternative to…
Print Friendly
Green energy tips good for business
by Paul Brown
Sharing energy-saving ideas such as using seawater pumps to heat buildings is helping big charities and businesses cut…
Print Friendly
Bigger isn't better for energy savings
by Inga Vesper
The desire for more spacious cars and houses is cancelling out energy savings made by environmentally friendly…
Print Friendly
Nuclear waste problems start gold rush
by Paul Brown
Staggering sums of money involved in the long-term challenge of solving the world’s nuclear waste problems make it a…

LATEST VIDEOS

Jay Inslee Tells Hayes That He Wants To Gut The Filibuster To Fight Climate Change
by MSNBC
Washington Governor Jay Inslee is running for president on the single issue of climate change and argues that doing…
Causes and Effects of Climate Change
by National Geographic
What causes climate change (also known as global warming)? And what are the effects of climate change? Learn the human…
Extreme Weather and Global Warming
by NASA Goddard
Is the frequency of extreme weather events a sign that global warming is gaining pace and exceeding predictions? Bill…
Thanks to Climate Change, Wet Winters No Match for Drier California Summers
by KPIX CBS SF Bay Area
If the emerald-green hills around Northern California have you thinking recent rains have put a damper on the fire…
Climate Change Is Not One Issue
by MSNBC
"Climate change is not one issue," said David Wallace-Wells, author of "The Uninhabitable Earth," but is…
The Heat: Climate change
by CGTN America
Images gathered by NASA show an increase in foliage in China and India. The greening effect is mainly due to ambitious…
No company is doing enough to combat climate change: Jeremy Grantham
by CNBC Television
Jeremy Grantham, co-founder of GMO, on climate change and what needs to be done to combat it.
Power Plants Are POISONING Groundwater All Over America
by The Ring of Fire
According to a new report, 90% of coal-fired power plants across the country have completely contaminated the…

LATEST ARTICLES

Default Image
Come on, UK weather forecasters – tell it like it is on climate change
by Adam Corner
They have a national reach that most climate campaigners would die for. They are familiar and respected experts on the…
Green New Deal: 6 places already reducing emissions from buildings
Green New Deal: 6 places already reducing emissions from buildings
by David Roberts
One of the elements of the Green New Deal resolution that has caused the most consternation among critics on the right…
Default Image
UK environmentalists target Barclays in fossil fuels campaign
by Matthew Taylor
A UK-wide campaign is being launched to persuade one of the country’s biggest high street banks to stop investing…
Oceanic carbon uptake could falter
Oceanic carbon uptake could falter
by Tim Radford
What does oceanic carbon uptake achieve? Greenhouse gas that sinks below the waves slows global warming a little and…
Britain (Yes, Rainy Britain) Could Run Short of Water by 2050, Official Says
Britain (Yes, Rainy Britain) Could Run Short of Water by 2050, Official Says
by Global Warming & Climate Change
“Climate change plus growth equals an existential threat,” Mr. Bevan said. To avoid severe water shortages, he added,…
Default Image
Record high US temperatures outpace record lows two to one, study finds
by Associated Press
Over the past 20 years, Americans have been twice as likely to sweat through record-breaking heat rather than shiver…
Climate change: Water shortages in England 'within 25 years'
Climate change: Water shortages in England 'within 25 years'
by BBC News - Science & Environment
Image copyright PA Image caption Low water levels at Wayoh Reservoir near Bolton in the UK heatwave in July 2018 Within…
Default Image
Why you'll never meet a white supremacist who cares about climate change
by Rebecca Solnit
As the news of the Christchurch mosque massacre broke and I scoured the news, I came across a map showing that the…