September 23rd, 2021
The BC Lung Association (BC Lung) has long been adamant—wood smoke is bad for lungs. We’ve posted in the past that burning wood emits harmful toxins and fine particles into the air that can worsen asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Our BC State of the Air Reports provide yearly updates on PM2.5, which wood smoke helps create. We continue to speak out in the press on this issue.
We treat the issue of wood burning for heat as a complicated issue. Many people argue it’s the only heat they can afford, and their existing homes were built for wood stoves because it’s abundant and cheap. Whereas some people have a strong emotional attachment to log fires, others see stagnation and lock in from a dangerous “culture of combustion”.
Currently in BC, regulating wood burning is in the hands of local governments, creating a myriad of local struggles that can be hard to keep track of. To date, we have worked with the Ministry of Environment to run the Wood Stove Exchange Program, which offers incentives for replacing older inefficient, smoky wood stoves with better alternatives. These can include newer certified wood stoves, but also include electric and natural gas alternatives. Yet many communities continue to see high PM 2.5 levels and many people with lung conditions face problems breathing outside air.
Over the last months we have heard from clean air advocates who have pushed us to do more. Advocates like Dr. Mehta at Thompson Rivers University argue strongly that current wood stove certification standards are not good enough.
Activists like Jennell Ellis of Breathe Clean Air Comox Valley are facing down industry associations like the Hearth, Patio & Barbecue Association. This North American wide industry association has begun to push hard against BC local governments that are trying to improve the situation. On the more positive side, there are now a lot of newer technologies becoming more viable, such as small-scale solar power, increased insulation, and electric heat pumps, which suggest ways to keep homes warm without burning biomass or fossil fuels.
We are beginning to rethink our position. We are committed to protecting lung health, but we also take seriously other values. We ground our decisions on scientific evidence and share many peoples’ concerns about energy poverty and the basic need of everyone to stay warm. We also think that perfection should not be the enemy of the good and will support incremental improvements when they can be made.
But starting now we think we can take some new steps.
Over the fall we will expand blogs on our website and other educational materials. We think it’s important to restate and help spread the word on the health impacts of wood smoke. People who burn wood can do a lot to avoid burning, or reduce how much they burn. We want them to consider the impacts of their actions on persons with lung conditions.
We will continue to assess the Wood Stove Exchange Program. The program has gone through its own evaluation process, and we are waiting for this to be public. So far, we are encouraged by new changes such as rebates on heat pumps and flexibility for local municipalities to limit where rebates for wood stoves might apply. Municipalities have the option not to offer rebates on wood stoves.
We are watching local processes such as the Comox Valley Regional District’s Airshed Roundtable Project. Comox Valley has been a leader in moving on wood stoves and we welcome additional momentum. We do not want it sidetracked by industry pressure. We understand that a new Draft Strategy will soon be released, and we will be sure to speak out and contribute to that process in support of lung health.
One thing is clear: There is change in the air in terms of how we think of homes. We need to think of the energy sources we use in our homes and their global and local impacts. We need to use less greenhouse gases, increase energy efficiency, and ensure good air inside homes and local airsheds. We need to upgrade industry practice and Building Codes and invest in retrofitting of older homes. We want BC Lung to be a positive catalyst for these changes and ensure lung health and the right to a healthy environment is put front and centre.
Dr. Menn Biagtan, VP Health Programs & Initiatives at email@example.com
Dr. Noah Quastel, Director, Law/Policy, Healthy Indoor Environments at firstname.lastname@example.org