Stoked on solutions Part 2: More air pollution means shorter lives

This is the second article in a five part series about Valemount’s air quality. Part 1: a flammable issue, examined how affordable alternatives to wood heat has made the solution taboo, and why the issue has been a tough one to discuss. This article delves into some of the health impacts.

by Andru McCracken

On Oct 27th, there was an air quality forum to discuss Valemount’s air pollution.

“Poor air quality is a contributor to poor health,” said Michael Brauer, a professor at the School of Population and Public Health at the University of British Columbia.

“I don’t want to give you the impression that, if there is air pollution, everyone is dropping dead,” said Brauer. “That is not the case.”

“If you live in a polluted community as opposed to a cleaner city you won’t live as long. If you live in a more polluted neighbourhood you will die sooner.”

Brauer said that there isn’t a specific air pollution disease, but that it leads to poorer outcomes for many diseases.

Studies in three British Columbia communities show that on days with poor air quality more people die.

Sarah Henderson, a senior scientist and epidemiologist at the BC Centre for Disease Control, described why wood smoke is toxic.

She said that fine particulate matter, tiny solids that are the result of incomplete combustion, are able to travel deep into our lungs.

The very fine particles classified as PM 2.5 are the most concern said Henderson, because there size triggers an immune response that can have serious consequences.

Smoke particulate (2.5) measured as parts per million (ppm) over 24 hours starting at noon on October 27. In B.C. the air quality objective is an average of 25ppm over 24 hours.

“The particles go deep into your lungs and your body attacks them. It senses a foreign invader like a virus. Unfortunately they can’t kill it, so the white blood cells keep attacking them and it leads to a state of sustained inflammation,” she said.

This sustained inflammation can be deadly depending on a person’s health.

Henderson said that on very smoky days it can lead some people to have a heart attack or a stroke.

“When you live in a smoky community it puts the whole population at risk of developing things like heart disease,” she said.

She said wood smoke is no different from industrial pollutants; the difference is how we regulate them.

“When you think of other sources of pollution, motor vehicles and industry, we brought those under really tight control,” she said. “A car today emits 3% of what a car 20 years ago could emit. “What we haven’t done is controlled emissions from residential wood stoves.”

She said wood stoves with catalytic converters do a great job, but only if you follow good burning practices.

“If you are burning wet wood, the catalytic converter doesn’t work,” she said. “The most important thing is that if you are going to burn wood, burn dry wood and know how to create a low smoke, almost smokeless fire.”

Henderson balked when asked if wood smoke was less harmful because it is natural.

“It’s just another form of air pollution, it is no better or worse than any other form of industrial pollution,” she said.

If you are wondering if you are burning well, you might check out a website out of New Zealand that minutely details the best way to create a trouble free cleaning burning efficient fire. The website can be found by searching for the terms warmer cheaper (the actual address is warmercheaper.co.nz.

If you have ever felt that the air quality is killing you, you are pretty much dead on. This photo captured smoke over Westridge on Friday, October 27, 2017. You might assume that the smoke from open burning in the mountains wouldn’t have a bearing on air quality in town, but the right conditions bring it back down.

Just in case he hadn’t made his point, Brauer took it further.

“I’m talking a lot about death,” said Brauer, flipping to a powerpoint slide that shows related illnesses. “That’s just the tip of the iceberg.”

“The good thing is if you clean up the air, everybody benefits,” he said. “It’s a responsibility that we share to keep our communities healthy.”

  • D. Katz

    Look up “Doctors and Scientists Against Wood Smoke Pollution” and/or “Families for Clean Air.” The DSAWSP site has a bibliography with links to over 400 studies and other references on wood burning and health, certified stoves, etc. It’s not a complete list, but it’s a good start.

  • laurakeil

    Approved

  • West Barr Lock

    Would you have a link to these multiple studies you reference?

  • AlanFSmith

    I have to commend professor Brauer for outlining the health implications of residential wood burning. It is a problem that should never have arisen as smoke from residential fires has been known for centuries to cause the diseases that we now associate with cigarette smoking. However as wood smoke is more dangerous than cigarette smoke it can kill in short order as identified in 1840. It would be worth checking the records after a build-up of smoke as people can die up to two months after exposure. We should all be concerned about wood smoke and health as we all pay through our taxes to treat smoke related diseases. Borrowing from the Australians, each wood stove costs taxpayers $12,000 per wood stove per year to treat smoke-related diseases.

  • D. Katz

    It is really a shame that catalytic and other certified wood stoves keep being promoted as the answer to our wood smoke problem. They are not.

    Multiple studies have shown that certified wood stoves are far more polluting in real-world usage than their certification values suggest. Multiple studies have also shown that catalytic wood stoves emit higher levels of some potent carcinogens such as dioxins and benzo(a)pyrene than conventional stoves. They are like mini toxic incinerators in our residential areas.