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Wood smoke presents major health hazard

Paul Hasselback -
Paul Hasselback
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Wood smoke is being called a major health hazard in the Cowichan Valley

The seasonal image of wood smoke, curling from snow capped chimneys, as a comforting vision of home and hearth is something that has to be corrected as far as Cowichan Valley health officials and air quality advocates are concerned.

Wood smoke is a health hazard that local governments must educate people about and take measures to mitigate. That was the message brought to North Cowichan council by Vancouver Island Health Authority Medical Health Officer Dr. Paul Hasselback and others.

Noting that Duncan and North Cowichan are among the municipalities whose airborne pollutants exceed standards set by the province, Hasselback said, “It would be nicer to be at the bottom of this list than at the top.”

Of particular concern are minute particles contained in wood smoke labelled PM2.5, which stands for ‘particulate matter’ less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter — 100 times thinner than a human hair.

These particles are so small they can pass directly through skin membranes into the human blood stream, causing all kinds of health problems, including cancer and heart disease. Because they are so minute, they also remain in the atmosphere much longer than larger particles, and can travel farther.

Hasselback noted that Cowichan Valley children are admitted to hospital due to respiratory diseases at a rate 60 per cent higher here than the provincial average, and that the figures are not coming down.

“Certainly this is a municipality where a clean air bylaw would be beneficial,” he said.

Jennifer Lawson of the Cowichan Fresh Air Team said, “Wood smoke is like tobacco smoke; there is no safe level for wood smoke.”

Later she added, “Breathing wood smoke is smoking, we need legislative change.”

She called for bylaws that would disallow fire places or wood stoves in new homes, or from being installed in existing homes, and ban outdoor burning.

Senior Environmental Analyst with the Cowichan Valley Regional District Keith Lawrence, who made a similar presentation to the Town of Ladysmith council in October, said wood stoves, fireplaces and open burning account for 76 per cent of the PM2.5 particles in the Cowichan Valley’s atmosphere.

The CVRD will be considering an air shed protection strategy this fall and winter, with the intent to implement it in 2016. Components of a strategy might include:

• raising public awareness about the health effects of wood smoke;

• providing information about best practices with wood burning devices;

• alternatives to back yard burning like pick up or chipping services;

• creation of an air shed protection round table to develop work plans and reporting procedures.

Asked if a ban on wood stoves or outdoor burning could be in the offing, he said, “It’s looking at the incremental progress we can make.”

Coun. Maeve Maguire responding to Lawson’s comment that incidences of cancer in households with wood burning stoves are 25 per cent higher than in other households asked if she was putting her family at risk by having a wood stove.

The greatest comfort Hasselback could offer was the suggestion that a properly installed wood stove would be ‘less of a concern’ than an old, or improperly installed unit.

Commenting on a suggestion that instead of an exchange program swapping old wood stoves for new units, North Cowichan should look at a program that would encourage switch overs to new, clean technologies like heat pumps, Mayor Jon Lefebure said his stance is changing.

“I have come to the point where I agree with Ms. Lawson that I don’t feel good when we exchange an old wood stove for a new wood stove,” he said.

 

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