Woodsmoke 101 – it’s in the air

Editor’s Note: This article is the first in a series the Citizen will be publishing in partnership with the provincial Ministry of the Environment and the Cowichan Valley Regional District about the importance of clean air the effects of pollution.

Health researchers have been looking at the effects of woodsmoke on people since the 1980s. A growing number of studies are finding the same thing.

Children living in homes with woodstoves are more likely to have shortness of breath, coughing, wheezing, asthma attacks, disrupted sleep, inflamed respiratory tracts and pneumonia. Anyone with heart or lung conditions, especially older people, are also more at risk. Breathing in smoky air can make symptoms worse, and make their hearts less able to respond to going from sitting to walking. Even smokers and ex-smokers have less resistance to the harmful effects of woodsmoke.

In fact, woodsmoke effects can be measured in everyone. Even in healthy people, researchers can measure changes deep in the lungs after breathing normal levels of woodsmoke. These effects are mild and would not make a healthy person sick, but can make symptoms worse for others.

Levels of the fine particles from woodsmoke go up during the heating season in the CVRD. When winds and temperatures are low, levels measured at the air quality station can be of concern.

More importantly, levels can be even higher inside and next to homes burning wood for heating.

When we put a monitor in the backyard of a home in Victoria next to a neighbour with a woodstove for a few days, we found fine particle levels were up to 25 times higher than at the nearest air quality station, about two kilometres away.

This same kind of monitor was used to map fine particulate pollution in the CVRD in 2010. On many of the evenings, short-term levels were up to 10 times higher in some areas compared to others.

Anywhere from 40 to 70 per cent of the pollution in the air outside your home ends up indoors. Using a HEPA air filter can help reduce indoor levels of fine particulates. If you use a woodstove, be sure to burn only dry wood – a brand new woodstove can produce as much smoke as an old one, if you are burning wood with more than 20 per cent moisture.

Visit the CVRD website (www.cvrd.

bc.ca) to get more information on how to check the moisture level of your wood, and how to check the amount of smoke coming out of your chimney to see if you are burning efficiently. Also, consider upgrading your woodstove in 2015 with a rebate from the CVRD, and improve air quality for you and your neighbours.

Look for more in this series of articles over the next few months: what’s in woodsmoke, comparing pollution from different woodstoves and other heating options, what are the costs of health impacts, and what are other sources of air pollution in the CVRD.

Eleanor Setton is a research scientist at the University of Victoria, with a special interest in the health impacts of pollution in the environment. Contributions were also made by the Cowichan Valley Regional District and the B.C. Ministry of Environment.

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