No wood stove would pass a basic vehicle emissions test, yet the Comox Valley allows them to burn day and night, for weeks and months, with almost no regulation, polluting our air and posing serious public health risks
This article was updated twice on Nov. 2
The Comox Valley has a dirty little secret, and we’ve only recently begun to acknowledge it. The prevalence of wood stoves has made our air quality one of the worst in British Columbia.
It’s estimated that more than a third of Comox Valley households have some type of wood-burning appliance that gets fired up in the fall and then idles all day long, week after week for the next five or six months. And they cause more pollution and risks to public health than any other heat source.
For many, wood burning is part of the northern culture, a lingering nostalgia for living self-sufficiently off the land or a childhood memory of the coziness of gathering around a wood stove. It’s a logger’s ritual of gathering, chopping and stacking wood.
But for others, wood smoke is a nightmare that causes respiratory diseases and increases the risk of heart attacks. It means spending money on air purifiers and medications, or losing money from taking sick time off work.
Comox Valley air quality was among the province’s top 10 worst for fine particulate matter (called PM2.5) for the last six years in a row, according to the BC Lung Association. Courtenay was the only one of 13 communities in the Georgia Strait Air Zone that failed to meet Canadian standards for PM2.5.
The Comox Valley regularly has three or four multi-day air quality advisories every winter, while Vancouver might have one and more often none.
“One only has to drive around older neighborhoods or low-lying areas in the winter, especially in the evening, to see that there is a lot of smoke coming from wood stoves,” says Jennell Ellis, a spokesperson for the nonprofit Breathe Clean Air Comox Valley.
Comox Valley municipalities have started to address the problem.
Cumberland has banned the installation of wood burning appliances — stove and fireplaces — in all new construction. The Comox Valley Regional District has offered incentives to upgrade old, uncertified wood stoves to cleaner, healthier options. Courtenay Council passed a regulation last winter about moving in this direction (low interest loans, not incentives), but it is not in place.
The Town of Comox has taken no action on wood stoves yet. But Mayor-Elect Russ Arnott announced at an air quality information session this week that he expects that to “change in the next three months.”
“I’m hoping to have it brought up quite soon after the new council comes together,” Arnott told Decafnation after the meeting. “My feeling is that this council will want to act on it … So, while I don’t have consensus at this time I’m confident we can work something out.”
The situation is urgent for many people.
A 2017 multi-year heart attack study conducted in Kamloops, Prince George and Courtenay showed that short-term exposure to fine particulates increased heart attack risk in seniors by 6 percent, and by 19 percent when exposed to wood burning.
Ellis said the young and elderly are most at risk of health problems from wood smoke.
Studies have shown that smoke from a wood stove releases carcinogenic toxins equivalent to 1,000 cigarettes.
“Inhaling wood smoke is secondhand smoke,” Ellis said. She adds that PM2.5, the harmful fine particulate in wood smoke is easy to inhale, but difficult to exhale, which leads to deep respiratory problems.
North Island Medical Health Officer Dr. Charmaine Enns has yet to mandate any restrictions on wood burning devices, but she has noted their accompanying health risks.
“It’s understanding the fact that there is no healthy level of air pollution. And exposure over time does impact chronic disease progression,” Enns has said.
FURTHER READING: How to read the Comox Valley air monitor readings
Perhaps it’s that pioneering tradition of burning wood for heat that clouds our judgement of its negative environmental impacts.
“There’s no wood stove that would meet a vehicle emissions test, yet we allow many of them to idle where we live, every day and next to schools,” Ellis told Decafnation via email.
“And if someone isn’t burning well, we end up investing taxpayer’s money into education and then enforcement if they still ignore best practices. No other heating appliance requires this kind of ongoing investment. No other heating appliance has so many proven health impacts,” she said.
What are the solutions
Ellis told Comox residents attending one of Breathe Clean Air’s roving information sessions at the Comox United Church Oct. 30, that to make a transition from wood stoves affordable requires a two-part strategy:
One, incentivize and regulate a transition out of wood stoves completely; and, two keep BC Hydro rates down.
But, the overall goal is to really transition people to cleaner heat sources, particularly in populated areas which will require education, incentives and regulation/enforcement. It is also important that people who are being impacted by neighbourhood smoke have bylaws available to deal with that, just as they do with undue amounts of noise or other disturbances.
“The solution is definitely not to move people to newer wood stoves, especially in more densely populated areas,” she said. “A recent study from the UK showed that an eco-certified stove, operating at factory testing levels, puts out more fine particulates than 18 Modern Diesel Passenger cars.”
Ellis diagramed the rating of heating sources for her Comox audience.
Wood fireplaces are the worst emitters of PM2.5, plus they suck the heat of a house, making them the most inefficient heat sources. Pellet burning stoves are slightly better than wood burners. They emit 27 pounds of annual pollution. Oil furnaces emit a quarter-pound of pollution, and gas a sixteenth of a pound.
Electric powered heating devices are the best, emitting zero pollution annually, she said. And electric heat exchanger systems are the best, drawing a minimum amount of power.
Ellis advocates for a Valley-wide approach, with consistent regulations across jurisdictions. Right now, the Valley’s four municipal governments all have different bylaws governing wood stoves and open burning of yard waste.
Cumberland, Comox and Courtenay all ban backyard fires to burn leaves or other debris, but it is allowed in regional electoral areas A, B and C.
Ellis said there are methods for Valley residents to protect themselves, including running HEPA-rated air purifiers inside, and turning off the ‘fresh’ air intakes in homes and vehicles during heavy smoke periods, usually early winter evenings when mini-atmospheric inversions coincide with people stoking up their stoves. Wearing N95 or N99 rated masks may also help when outside, but only if the mask fits very well.
People can also install localized air quality monitors available from PurpleAir.
The Breathe Clean Air event at Comox United Church in Comox was sponsored by SAGE: Sustainability Action Group for the Environment.