Sunday, July 3, 2011

Wood smoke pollution: a serious and growing problem in many Canadian communities

The following is an updated re-post of a 'blog' entry I first created years ago. At that time I posted my entries to my university website. Rather than continue to update those posts, I thought it best to transfer them here. I will do the same for several other posts in the coming days. The original post is here. 

More and more neighbourhoods in Canada suffer from pollution due to wood-burning fireplaces or stoves. Normally people burning wood are not aware of the negative impact. They may even think they are being environmentally conscious by burning wood.
However, wood is far from benign; the particulates and other components of wood smoke generally cause more harm than emissions from other heating sources, especially with certain types of installations and if the wood is not very dry hardwood.

The following references provide lots of information about this topic:
  • The Canadian Lung Association. They say: "Wood smoke exposure can disrupt the cellular membranes, depress immune system activity, damage the layer of cells that protect and cleanse the airways, and disrupt enzyme levels. The health effects of wood smoke exposure include increased respiratory symptoms, increased hospital admissions for lower respiratory infections, exacerbation of asthma, and decreased breathing ability." They also provide an extensive list of advice, including a pdf file of a model municipal bylaw, originally produced by Environment Canada.
  • The Canadian Clean Air Alliance. They have a petition you can sign to ban wood burning.
  • Environment Canada
  • Health Canada 
  • Burning Issues, a non-profit group that focuses on the wood smoke problem
  • Update: Woodburnersmoke. Another excellent site with numerous resources. The sites owner had to fight in court to deal with a problem neighbour.
  • From the Government of British Columbia
  • City of Kelowna BC
  • News report of severe problems suffered in Quebec from wood stoves
  • From Their key advice is to use seasoned wood, the latest technology and have a chimney that rises straight up, inside the house. My observation is that if you need to burn wood, these are the key pieces of advice. In particular, the kinds of stoves that just push the chimney out the side wall are the worst.
  • Australian EPA
  • New South Wales, Australia
As the references indicate, wood burning may cause more pollution in a city than vehicles. Even one family burning wood in a neighbourhood can cause health symptoms for people downwind. You may know someone who has mentioned that their eyes water or their throat stings when they go out for a walk or run on a winter's night. This may be caused by improper wood burning. Some of the pollution is undoubtedly making its way inside homes as well.

In addition to the pollution problem, wood burning fireplaces and stoves vent a large amount of warm air from inside your home. If you are using one to try to reduce your heating bill, you may find that it doesn't have the desired effect.

If you decide to continue burning wood, please consider the following:
  • Do you only burn very dry (old) hardwood? ? It is best if wood has been split and left to dry under a shelter for an entire year.
  • Do you make sure your fireplace or stove burns at the right temperature and with the right ventilation to reduce harmful emissions? (see the above references for details about this)
  • Is smoke carried up and away by a tall chimney?
  • Have you considered replacing your fireplace with a natural-gas insert that looks like a fireplace? (These give the ambiance of a wood fireplace, without sucking warm air out of the home)
  • Have you walked around your community from time to time while you are burning your wood to ensure you cannot smell your fireplace or stove? Have you asked your neighbours down-wind whether your wood smoke ever bothers them?
Improper wood burning may also cause fires. In Sandy Hill, Ottawa, where we used to live, a family started burning freshly delivered wood one autumn. A few months later they had a chimney fire caused by the creosote buildup.

While enjoying the warmth of our fireplaces in Canada's winters, let's all make the best decisions for our safety and the health of our community.

1 comment:

  1. Professor Lethbridge, here are several research papers I've found over the past four years that I have been studying wood smoke: