Wood smoke a health hazard to be aware of

Asthma before-after

Image source: [Public domain] Wikimedia Commons

Letter by Cathy Baiton, printed in the Lethbridge Herald (lethbridgeherald.com)  Letters – Monday, February 8, 2010

The adverse effects of cigarette smoke are well-known, but another source of second-hand smoke has become noticeable in parts of our city, as more chimneys are releasing wood smoke into the air.

In Canada and elsewhere, a movement away from residential wood burning is beginning to emerge, in light of ongoing research about its harmful effects. Wood smoke actually contains many toxins similar to those found in cigarette smoke, and components of both types of smoke are carcinogenic.

The extremely fine particles in wood smoke can penetrate deep into the lungs, and remain active in the body up to 40 times longer than tobacco smoke. Even short exposures can trigger or aggravate allergy, asthma or other health issues, and research shows that children in wood-burning neighbourhoods have more lung and breathing problems.

Because the particulate matter is so fine, up to 70 per cent of outdoor levels of smoke can enter homes nearby, as U.S. studies have shown. Residential wood-burning emissions are also a main cause of fine particle pollution in many cities — in some areas, even more than emissions from industry or vehicles. More information on the air quality and health effects of residential wood burning can be found at the excellent Burning Issues website, at http://burningissues.org/.

A number of places, such as Montreal and Hampstead, Quebec, have brought in public awareness efforts, regulations and bans to help local air quality and protect residents from exposure to wood smoke. Wood burning can be an option in the country where homes are widely spaced and the smoke can dissipate, but it’s very different on residential streets where neighbours often bear the brunt of smoke or fumes produced by chimneys or fire pits nearby.

We’re fortunate to live in a region where cleaner-burning fuels are available, which the American Lung Association recommends using in place of wood whenever possible. As the Lung Association of Quebec says in an article about residential wood heating on its website: “It is time to care about the air that we pollute because it is the air that we breathe.” http://www.pq.lung.ca/environment-environnement/wood_smoke-fumee_bois/

As a parent, I also hope people will consider the potential costs for the environment and health before burning wood in residential areas, to help the air stay healthier for everyone, in all seasons.