Made up of very fine particulate matter, wood smoke is the kind of air pollution that concerns public health advocates most. Toxic particles so small they’re invisible to the eye can travel through our airways, past our body’s defence system, and into the bloodstream. And in BC, there’s no question, our greatest source is residential wood burning and wildfires.
How much of a problem is wood smoke pollution in BC?
Given available data, we know residential wood smoke accounts for 31 percent of BC’s fine particulate pollution in Metro Vancouver alone. And, with increases in monitoring stations, and mobile pollution monitoring research ongoing in rural BC communities, data is building that demonstrates residential wood smoke levels in many communities are much higher than previously thought.
Also contributing to arguments for better solutions is data being collected thanks to the proliferation of small, low-cost, air quality sensors. These sensors are being used to support ‘citizen science’ projects; public initiatives whereby concerned communities and individuals deploy sensors to understand local air quality.
Why is wood smoke so bad for our health?
Think of wood smoke pollution – or any air pollution - as an offender, a bit like bacteria. The body reacts by fighting back, transitioning into an inflammatory state, which puts us at higher risk of disease similar to the way smoking, poor diet and lack of physical activity. While it may be obvious that toxins in the air will affect our breathing and lungs, today we know air pollution also puts stress on the heart, increasing risk of heart attack, kidney problems, brain damage and more.
We’re even starting to understand how it can effect pregnancy and unborn babies.
BC researchers have established that on days when there’s more smoke there are also spikes in emergency hospital visits due to asthma attacks. They’ve also demonstrated that in communities known to experience amongst the highest concentrations of wood smoke pollution, residents are at a 20 percent higher risk of heart attack during wood burning season.
What are we doing about it?
Progress is being made, but for those whose health is negatively effected, it’s not happening quickly enough. Until recently, regulations around wood smoke emissions had not changed for 20 to 25 years, contrasting sharply with radical shifts and programs, say, designed to minimize vehicle emissions. In terms of residential wood burning appliances, new regulations were established in 2017 that now require all appliances sold in BC must be US EPA or CSA approved.
To help promote the purchase of more efficient home heating appliances, the BC government, supported by the BC Lung Association, works with interested local communities to offer financial incentives designed to encourage the exchange of old, dirtier wood stoves for cleaner burning devices. (See BC wood stove exchange program for details)
What kind of heating appliance is eligible for incentives is decided by each participating local government. One community may opt, for example, to ban wood burning appliances outright or at minimum, allowing only the exchange of an old dirty stove for the cleanest wood heating device out there - a wood pellet stove. Another may require only the minimum, which is that the new appliance purchased be US EPA or CSA approved as current BC regulations require.
One challenge is that to date, community wood stove exchange incentives have varied from $400 to $1900, dependent on how a local government contributes, in addition to the $250 provincial per household incentive provided. Incentives offered realistically subsidize but a portion of a new appliance’s cost. Further, there is the fact some people enjoy wood heating and are resistant to change. Others live in rural areas where wood supply is abundant and an extremely affordable source of heat. And finally, for those living in communities off the grid, wood heating can be the only option.
Policymakers remain hopeful new appliance regulations will drive improvements in BC air quality but admit many old residential wood burning appliances remain out there, many continue to work, and the cost of replacement is simply not something everyone can afford.
Ultimately, coming up with better solutions to the issue of residential wood burning is dependent to a large degree on community activism and local political will.
What is society willing to pay clean up our air?
Studies exist that suggest every dollar spent on air quality management measures drives four to 30 dollars back in healthcare benefits. All considered, effectively addressing the issue of residential wood smoke pollution may take extreme gestures. An example is California, where recently in an unprecedented move that will cut costs for low-income households and cut emissions for everyone, the state is paying for some homes to install energy-efficient appliances.
The BC Lung Association’s position.
Where alternative forms of heating are an available and affordable way to keep yourself and your family warm, the BC Lung Association’s position is clear - no wood burning is best.
Wood smoke may smell good to some, but it's not good for your health. Scientific evidence links wood smoke pollution to a long and growing list of negative health effects. Those most vulnerable? The very young, older people, and people living with chronic lung, heart and other serious health conditions.