Blame Wood-Burning Stoves for Winter Air Pollution and Health Threats
By Michael D. Mehta
It may be natural, but there's nothing safe or environmentally sound about heating your home with wood.
The World Health Organization has ranked air pollution and climate change as the top health threat for 2019. One in nine deaths around the world are due to air pollution.
In Canada, air pollution kills nine times more people than automobile accidents. My own research shows that in rural British Columbia the main source of winter air pollution is residential wood burning, and that it is mostly being ignored and rarely monitored by government.
Wood smoke may smell good, but it is not good for you.
The main threat comes from the cocktail of tiny particles and droplets that are about 2.5 microns in diameter (also called PM2.5). Due to their size, they easily work their way into our lungs, bloodstream, brain and other organs, triggering asthma attacks, allergic responses, heart attacks and stroke.
Wood smoke affects everyone, but children are especially vulnerable in part because their respiratory systems are under development. Pregnant women exposed to wood smoke may have children with smaller lungs, impaired immune systems, decreased thyroid function and changes to brain structure that may contribute to difficulties with self control. Children who are hospitalized for lower respiratory tract infections are more likely to have a wood stove in the house, although other factors may also play a role.
The elderly are also at risk. A recent study of people living in BC, in Kamloops, Prince George, Courtenay and the Comox Valley, showed that wood stove pollution significantly increased the rate of heart attacks in people over 65.
And that nice smell? It comes from benzene, a carcinogen (cancer-causing substance) and acrolein.
With the dozens of toxic and carcinogenic chemicals in wood smoke, it's inconsistent for governments to ban smoking and vaping in public places while ignoring the smoke from wood stoves and fireplaces.
Neither Sustainable Nor Carbon Neutral
Pollution from wood fires can become trapped in a valley when warm air holds cold air close to the ground.
S/V Moonrise / Wikimedia / CC BY-SA
Burning wood for energy releases more carbon than burning coal and it is speeding up climate warming. It also releases black carbon, a powerful short-lived pollutant, that can accelerate the melting and retreat of glaciers.
There are alternatives. For everyday heating, mini-split air source heat pumps are an excellent option. They are often three to four times more efficient than electric baseboard heaters and can work in colder climates. For example, the community of Skidegate in Haida Gwaii placed heat pumps in every house, reducing the use of wood for home heating.
Efficient propane stoves and heaters are an excellent complement to heat pumps and can provide top-up heating on very cold days as well as backup heating during power outages.
Most regional and municipal governments in BC have been reluctant to deal with these issues, and tend to focus on wood stove exchange programs as the solution. Based on my current research, the vocal response by the wood-burning industry and its customers often drowns out reasoned discussion.
The BC Lung Association has also been a strong advocate of wood stove exchange programs. But even the cleanest, highest level of eco-certified wood stoves generate more particulate matter per hour than 18 newer diesel passenger cars — and the wood stove may be right beside you.
Citizen Science is a Gamechanger
Concerned citizens have set-up an extensive and a growing network of low-cost air quality monitors made by PurpleAir. Kamloops, for example, with a topography that tends to trap air pollution from heavy industry and residential wood burning, has 30 of these wifi-enabled, real-time sensors, as do hundreds of other communities around the world.
These monitors show a distinct and troublesome pattern. The clear "signature" of wood burning shows that many rural BC communities often have winter air pollution levels that far exceed those seen in larger cities like Victoria and Vancouver. Some of the sensors register air quality readings that rival bad air days in China and India. Wood smoke is creating hot spots that expose people to levels of air pollution not normally recorded by provincial air quality monitors.
Wood smoke, and the cultural and social practices that allow it to be generated without much regulation and control, operates in a vacuum where preconceptions, origin stories and strong emotions impair action. We need another narrative.
Lack of government action to deal with this problem encourages people to ignore this evidence and to underestimate the risk. Burning wood deprives people of the right to breathe clean air in their own homes, and it ultimately represents an uncontrolled form of secondhand smoke exposure with broad implications.
Reposted with permission from our media associate The Conversation.
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By D. André Green II
One of nature's epic events is underway: Monarch butterflies' fall migration. Departing from all across the United States and Canada, the butterflies travel up to 2,500 miles to cluster at the same locations in Mexico or along the Pacific Coast where their great-grandparents spent the previous winter.
Millions of People Care About Monarchs<p>I will never forget the sights and sounds the first time I visited monarchs' overwintering sites in Mexico. Our guide pointed in the distance to what looked like hanging branches covered with dead leaves. But then I saw the leaves flash orange every so often, revealing what were actually thousands of tightly packed butterflies. The monarchs made their most striking sounds in the Sun, when they burst from the trees in massive fluttering plumes or landed on the ground in the tussle of mating.</p><p>Decades of educational outreach by teachers, researchers and hobbyists has cultivated a generation of monarch admirers who want to help preserve this phenomenon. This global network has helped restore not only monarchs' summer breeding habitat by planting milkweed, but also general pollinator habitat by planting nectaring flowers across North America.</p><p>Scientists have calculated that restoring the monarch population to a stable level of about 120 million butterflies will require <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/icad.12198" target="_blank">planting 1.6 billion new milkweed stems</a>. And they need them fast. This is too large a target to achieve through grassroots efforts alone. A <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/CCAA.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">new plan</a>, announced in the spring of 2020, is designed to help fill the gap.</p>
Pros and Cons of Regulation<p>The top-down strategy for saving monarchs gained energy in 2014, when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service <a href="https://www.fws.gov/southeast/pdf/petition/monarch.pdf" target="_blank">proposed</a> listing them as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. A decision is expected in December 2020.</p><p>Listing a species as endangered or threatened <a href="https://www.fws.gov/endangered/esa-library/pdf/listing.pdf" target="_blank">triggers restrictions</a> on "taking" (hunting, collecting or killing), transporting or selling it, and on activities that negatively affect its habitat. Listing monarchs would impose restrictions on landowners in areas where monarchs are found, over vast swaths of land in the U.S.</p><p>In my opinion, this is not a reason to avoid a listing. However, a "threatened" listing might inadvertently threaten one of the best conservation tools that we have: public education.</p><p>It would severely restrict common practices, such as rearing monarchs in classrooms and back yards, as well as scientific research. Anyone who wants to take monarchs and milkweed for these purposes would have to apply for special permits. But these efforts have had a multigenerational educational impact, and they should be protected. Few public campaigns have been more successful at raising awareness of conservation issues.</p>
<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="91165203d4ec0efc30e4632a00fdf57d"><iframe lazy-loadable="true" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/KilPRvjbMrA?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
The Rescue Attempt<p>To preempt the need for this kind of regulation, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service approved a <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/pdfs/Monarch%20CCAA-CCA%20Public%20Comment%20Documents/Monarch-Nationwide_CCAA-CCA_Draft.pdf" target="_blank">Nationwide Candidate Conservation Agreement for Monarch Butterflies</a>. Under this plan, "rights-of-way" landowners – energy and transportation companies and private owners – commit to restoring and creating millions of acres of pollinator habitat that have been decimated by land development and herbicide use in the past half-century.</p><p>The agreement was spearheaded by the <a href="http://rightofway.erc.uic.edu/" target="_blank">Rights-of-Way Habitat Working Group</a>, a collaboration between the University of Illinois Chicago's <a href="https://erc.uic.edu/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Energy Resources Center</a>, the Fish and Wildlife Service and over 40 organizations from the energy and transportation sectors. These sectors control "rights-of-way" corridors such as lands near power lines, oil pipelines, railroad tracks and interstates, all valuable to monarch habitat restoration.</p><p>Under the plan, partners voluntarily agree to commit a percentage of their land to host protected monarch habitat. In exchange, general operations on their land that might directly harm monarchs or destroy milkweed will not be subject to the enhanced regulation of the Endangered Species Act – protection that would last for 25 years if monarchs are listed as threatened. The agreement is expected to create up to 2.3 million acres of new protected habitat, which ideally would avoid the need for a "threatened" listing.</p>
A Model for Collaboration<p>This agreement could be one of the few specific interventions that is big enough to allow researchers to quantify its impact on the size of the monarch population. Even if the agreement produces only 20% of its 2.3 million acre goal, this would still yield nearly half a million acres of new protected habitat. This would provide a powerful test of the role of declining breeding and nectaring habitat compared to other challenges to monarchs, such as climate change or pollution.</p><p>Scientists hope that data from this agreement will be made publicly available, like projects in the <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/MCD.html" target="_blank">Monarch Conservation Database</a>, which has tracked smaller on-the-ground conservation efforts since 2014. With this information we can continue to develop powerful new models with better accuracy for determining how different habitat factors, such as the number of milkweed stems or nectaring flowers on a landscape scale, affect the monarch population.</p><p>North America's monarch butterfly migration is one of the most awe-inspiring feats in the natural world. If this rescue plan succeeds, it could become a model for bridging different interests to achieve a common conservation goal.</p>
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