Should burning wood be made illegal for health reasons?
It’s a part of a Canadian vignette that lives in so many of our memories; the crunch of sharp blades on pond ice, the brace of morning air, the smell of wood smoke from a distant chimney promising warmth for soon-to-be frozen fingers and toes.
But our children, it seems, will have different memories.
Across the country, the burning of wood for heat is under fire. In Montreal, it is already illegal to install a new wood burning stove, except for those that use energy efficient wood pellets, like the ones that have caught on in parts of Europe.
In smaller municipalities like Parksville, on Vancouver Island, the subject is contentious. Earlier this month, councilor Kirk Oates argued for the ban of wood-burning appliances. But the town’s director of community planning, Blaine Russell, offered an alternate view.
“Many residents in Parksville are on fixed incomes and heating a home with wood is one of the most cost-effective methods available when compared to other options,” wrote Russell in a report.
Should burning wood be illegal? The issue is a sticky one…
The case against wood fires is at once clear and complex.
In the United States, the Environmental Protection Agency has already banned the sale of the majority of wood burning stoves. New standards that will be introduced in May of this year will lower the limit for fine airborne particulate emissions to 12 micrograms per cubic metre, down from 15 micrograms per cubic metre.
“Particulate pollution from wood heaters is a significant national air pollution problem and human health issue.” said the EPA in its own recent regulatory impact analysis. “These regulations would also significantly reduce emissions of many other pollutants from these appliances, including carbon monoxide, volatile organic compounds, hazardous air pollutants and black carbon. Emissions from wood stoves occur near ground level in residential communities across the country, and setting these new requirements for cleaner stoves into the future will result in substantial reductions in exposure and improved public health.”
But a report from the Norwegian Institute of Public Health says the issue is not only a matter of the type of stove, it is as much about the type of wood that is being burned, and its chemical composition, solubility and size.
“The physical and chemical properties of particulate matter from wood-burning have great influence on how these particles may affect our health. Worsening of cardiovascular diseases and respiratory diseases such as asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease are the main concerns,” noted the institute’s Anette Kocbach Bølling.
In Paris, a proposed ban on wood fireplaces that was to take place on January 1st of this year, was reversed. A campaign led by ecology minister Segolene Royal was successful after doubts were raised about a report from air quality monitoring network Airparif that claimed fireplaces were responsible for 25% of fine-particle emissions.
Another issue with data used in arguments against wood as fuel is the error of omission made when the harmful impacts of its emissions are considered without accounting for the source of power they are replacing, which is likely to be fossil fuels such as propane and heating oil.
What is clear is that, going forward, home heating from wood will not be the most efficient method available. But what is equally clear is that that day has not yet arrived for everyone. In the meantime, incentives like rebates should be combined with an education campaign from the like of the EPA and Environment Canada.
Anyone who has enjoyed the warmth of an aged hardwood fire knows there is a world of difference between a green softwood fire started with cardboard and broken down shipping pallets and the warm, smoke free glow of seasoned oak with a moisture content under 20%. There’s also a huge difference in emissions.
In Canada, and across the board, a legislated ban of wood fireplaces would be a decidedly Draconian measure. The use of wood as an important secondary source of heat is illustrated by a provision in Montreal’s legislation that allows anyone with any stove to burn wood during electrical blackouts of longer than three hours. A full scale ban would almost certainly affect a demographic that skews poor and/or rural. Until a reasonable alternative is widely available Canadians, many of whom have learned proper techniques for drying, storing and burning wood, should have the right to continue to do so to keep themselves warm.