BC Lung Association public health advocate Britt Swoveland talks about growing up in a home were wood burning was her family's primary source of heat - and it's impact on her health.
I had the privilege of growing up on a large apple farm in the sunny Okanagan before I moved to Vancouver Island. Fall was harvest time which meant picking hundreds of bins of apples, attending the Annual Fair, and of course, Hallowe’en! But times were not always easy on the farm, and my parents both worked long, hard days to support a family of six.
My mom would can fruit, baked her own bread, and shopped from the local co-op. And, besides growing almost all our own fruits and vegetables, we saved money by using wood heat as a primary fuel source for several months of the year.
In fact, hauling ‘fire-wood’ was a winter ritual. My father would take my sister and I into the back-country to locate a suitable, fallen tree. We would then work together, chopping the logs into pieces, and stacking the whole load into our basement. It took several days and was exhausting work. But soon enough the basement was full, and my father pleased to be ready for winter.
People not dependent on wood for heat may not realize just how messy a business it can be. Sometimes I was asked to start the fire from scratch. Smoke would spill out into the room because I had added too much paper, or didn’t open the damper. One little mistake and you smelled like a camp fire for the rest of the day, not to mention the coughing I would endure as I tried to get the fire going.
Jump forward 30 years and I now live in a lovely, quiet, urban community located on Vancouver Island. Many of the homes are old, with wood burning fireplaces, including my own century house. Our house has a large brick fireplace, and it's lovely, but we don’t use it. As it happened, in my twenties, I developed my own lung health issues, and ‘wood smoke’ is something I need to avoid whenever possible to keep my lungs healthy.
So it goes without saying, I understand the growing concern with wood smoke and its impact on health. When my neighbours start lighting their fires, there is nothing I can do to stop the smoke from travelling our way; no amount of keeping doors or windows closed keeps all the fine particulate out. Even walking in the evening can be difficult. Sometimes I tuck my face into my jacket, to try to lessen the amount I breathe in.
That cozy warm fire that so many enjoy indoors, and that others – like my family – relied on for heat, creates a toxic, carcinogenic mix of fine particulate matter which poses a real threat to public health.
Sadly, the air we pollute, is the air we breathe. And while I confess some nostalgia for the embrace of a cozy wood fire, I have come to realize through my own experience that health must come first, and no burning is best.
Find more information on wood smoke here.