We spoke with BC air quality expert Markus Kellerhals, about the public health issue of wood smoke, BC's wood stove exchange program and new provincial regulations related to wood burning appliances.
Is wood smoke a big problem in BC?
Yes. Wood smoke is one of the most serious causes of air pollution in BC. Smoke from woodstoves and fireplaces contains fine particulate matter. Studies in a number of BC communities show that wood smoke accounts for anywhere from a few percent to more than 60 percent of local fine particulate matter.
Why is wood smoke, and the particulate matter it contains, so bad for our health?
The smoke from wood burning is made up of a complex mixture of gases and fine particles (also called particle pollution, particulate matter, or PM). These microscopic particles can get into your eyes and respiratory system, where they can cause health problems such as burning eyes, runny nose, and illnesses such as bronchitis. In addition to PM pollution, wood smoke contains several toxic harmful air pollutants including: benzene, formaldhyde, acrolein and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). So while to some, smoke may smell good, it's not good for your health. Both short and long term exposures to PM pollution from wood smoke have been linked to a variety of serious health effects.
Can you explain why many people don’t think of wood smoke as a health issue?
I think some people simply haven’t experienced wood smoke pollution in their community, and so they’re not aware of the issue. Also, it can be a polarizing subject, pitting those with serious health concerns against people who say they can't afford to heat their homes any other way than with wood stoves. But the fact is you don’t want to be inhaling wood smoke if you can avoid it. People committed to wood heating often argue that wood is a renewable energy resource, that it can be sourced locally, and that it benefits local economies. They have a point, but it doesn’t negate the fact that wood smoke is a public health issue.
Does government receive a lot of complaints about wood smoke?
I think it is fair to say the number of people concerned and speaking up is growing. Awareness of the issue itself is building. This is thanks in large part to increasing community advocacy efforts. In addition, the government has worked to establish air quality monitoring stations in a greater number of communities across BC. This allows us to provide greater monitoring of, and reporting on, air quality issues – and thus grows public awareness and calls for action.
What is the wood stove exchange program?
Under the wood stove exchange program the BC government offers a $250 incentive to anyone willing to exchange their old, inefficient wood burning appliance for a more efficient one. And the BC communities who participate sometimes elect to top up that amount using local government funds, thus further increasing the available incentive. The BC Lung Association helps us administer the program. (See the list of 2016-2017 participating communities ). The wood stove exchange program also educates people on clean burning practices.
If you want to minimize wood burning, why promote a wood stove exchange program?
A more efficient wood burning stove produces emits about 70 percent less particulate than an old, inefficient stove. And so if wood burning is the only type of heating you can afford, it is a positive improvement. Since the program was formally put in place since 2008, about 7,000 inefficient wood stoves have been exchanged. In addition to the reduced emissions, the wood stove exchange program has really helped to build awareness of wood smoke issues.
Are there any misperceptions about the wood stove exchange program?
Yes, one in particular. Many people think that the wood stove exchange program only allows people to purchase a more efficient wood stove. In reality, people also have the option of replacing the old wood stove with a pellet stove or a gas stove among other options. These options reduce pollution even further than a new wood stove.
Have you made any improvements to the program itself?
Yes, this year we’ve empowered participating communities to limit what appliances can be used to replace the old, inefficient wood stove. For instance in communities, where wood smoke is a severe problem, the community may specify that the old wood stove can only be replaced with a much cleaner appliance such as a pellet, gas or propane stove.
And what about regulations regarding wood burning in general. Have they got tougher?
Yes, last September tougher regulations were passed, and came into effect November 1, 2016. These regulations fall under the updated Solid Fuel Burning Domestic Appliance Regulation (SFBDAR) and are aimed at ensuring new wood burning appliances sold in BC are as clean burning as possible. Prior to this the regulations had not been updated since 1994.
Now all wood burning appliances sold in BC will have to meet stricter emissions standards adopted by the US Environmental Protection Agency. Under previous regulation, several wood heating devices were exempt from meeting emission standards. The new regulation ensures all appliances are subject to the same standards.
Further, outdoor wood boilers, which emit large quantities of smoke for example, will have to meet the new standards and be installed in a manner that minimizes risks to neighbours and the community. And a sunset date has been established for high-emitting outdoor boilers that will see them banned in 10 years, resulting in a reduction in pollution for rural communities and their residents.
More details regarding regulation changes can be found at http://www.bcairquality.ca/pdf/sfbdar_factsheet.pdf.
For more BC government information on wood burning and wood stoves visit bc.airquality.ca
Markus Kellerhals (left) works as Senior Air Quality Science Officer for the BC Ministry of Environment.