by Danny Zanbilowicz
Everyone likes superlatives. Here’s one we could do without- we have some of the worst air on Vancouver Island, and in all of BC.
All of a sudden, there is urgency around our air quality. Testing data recent and older shows the Comox Valley at or close to the top of the heap of poor air quality during winter months, from November to February.
Our Little *gasp* Secret
In 2008-2009 a series of tests were done by a UVic mobile monitoring unit, sparked by concerns of residents overlooking Goose Spit about smoke from recreational fires on the beach.
The tests found that there were “hot spots” throughout the valley with high levels of small particulate- in Courtenay, Comox and Cumberland, which frequently exceeded national standards.
The Georgia Strait Air Zone Report (2011-2013), which covers coastal areas of southwestern B.C. outside of the Lower Fraser Valley, has collected data on air quality. Sites in Courtenay and Duncan exceeded the 24-hour Canadian Ambient Air Quality Standards (CAAQS) for small particulate (PM2.5 28 g/m3) and only Courtenay exceeded the annual level (CAAQS of 10 g/m3). The report has “red flagged” our area for urgent action to reduce air pollution.
Each year the BC Lung Association puts out a State of the Air report, covering all the air zones in BC . The last three reports, with data from the monitoring station at Courtenay Elementary School showed that in 2012, Courtenay had the worst air in the province. The year after, the second worst, and in 2014, the fifth worst in the province.
There have been three “air quality advisories”, in our area, when burning is restricted by law.
From the brochure by Jennell Ellis- “Breathing in the Comox Valley”- “More recent data shows that when it comes to fine particulates (PM2.5) , Courtenay was over BC’s Air Quality Objective for 21 days between Nov. 1, 2015 and Jan. 15, 2016. The second poorest PM2.5 levels on Vancouver Island were measured in Port Alberni. It went over 25 μg/m3 just 6 times in those same 76 days.
Duncan had the third worst PM2.5 levels on the Island. It went over the objective 3 times in this period.
Stations in the Lower Mainland, such as Burnaby and North Vancouver, have quite low PM 2.5 levels. They never came close to going over the objective of 25 μg/m3.”
There are many possible causes of high levels of pollutant, including: “traffic exhaust, wood burning for residential heating and cooking, beach fires, burning of debris from land clearing and construction, prescribed agricultural burning, forestry-related burns and wildfires.”
In the Comox Valley there needs to be more research to pin down the precise causes, but smoke from wood stoves is the likely primary one. Also, we live in a valley where air is trapped, especially in the winter during “inversions”, when cold air is held close to the ground by warmer air, which allows pollutants to build up .
The biggest health concern from wood smoke is particulate matter, and the most dangerous is the small stuff- under 2.5 microns. A hair is 7 microns thick, these particles are that much smaller. Anything that burns give off fumes and particulates, but other fuels such as gas and oil give off much less of the small particulate matter which is so dangerous.
In Canada, there is no mandatory national standard for air quality, or even CSA compliance. (For wood stoves, Canadians often refer to American EPA standards.)
This is why regulating air quality has become the responsibility of local governments. Many across the country have already taken bold steps to legislate burning practices, such as our neighbours to the south on Vancouver Island.
In the Cowichan Valley alarm bells went off when Island Health data showed from 1998 to 2012 a 70 per cent higher hospital admission rate for children with respiratory diseases than the rest of B.C, 14 per cent higher asthma rates, and 50 per cent higher rate of chronic respiratory illness in people over 45.
As a result, the City of Duncan enacted Bylaw 3089 which stipulates that no wood stove can be installed unless it meets CSA and/or US EPA standards, and new houses must contain another source of heat to substitute for the wood stove during air quality advisories. If a home is sold, a non-certified wood stove must be removed or replaced.
In Port Alberni, by 2017, all wood stoves in all homes old or new, will have to be certified.
We, who have no such legislation, have recorded poorer air quality than both those jurisdictions.
The Health Officer
Charmaine Enns, North Island region Medical Health Officer for Island Health, says there is no evidence in the Comox Valley of an increased rate of children admitted to hospital, or of increased respiratory conditions for kids related to air quality. But she cautions- “Most respiratory issues are managed as out-patient, and no data is available on that. And most importantly, the impact on chronic disease progresses from chronic exposure, especially heart and lung disease.”
So we can do significant long-term harm to ourselves though we don’t know it on any particular day, until we discover that we are ill.
Charmaine explains “Chronic diseases are mutlti-factoral and not limited to poor air quality but it will make things worse. From our very small statistical population, we can’t make a lot of conclusions, but data from more populated areas where there have been studies are conclusive. In large centres where air quality is worse, more people die of heart disease. Some worsening of air quality in one part of the city means an increase of admissions and a higher chance of dying. There is evidence that health impacts include premature births, birth defects, cognitive decline, dementia, and diabetes. It affects the young, middle aged, and old. We all breathe, hopefully for a long time. Even if you don’t notice anything, it is still having an impact long term.”
Very small particles inhaled deeply in the lungs can enter the blood stream and create inflammatory responses- the arteries inflame and restrict blood flow, which can result in heart attacks.
Charmaine says- “We have only been measuring for the last two and a half to three years. But we have enough information to come together, start a discussion, and act. We need leaders and citizens involved. In the Cowichan Valley and Port Alberni there were different strategies. It isn’t one size fits all. We need to do a “smoke inventory”- to find out where the air pollution is coming from. That will help us move towards solutions. People love to burn. Fire is so important. I am not opposed to residential burning- it needs to be done right. I am committed to working with local government and seeing air quality improve.”
Clive Powsey, Shereelee Powsey, and Jennell Ellis are three residents of Cumberland who are concerned enough about air quality to start up a citizens’ group- “Breathe Clean Air Comox Valley”- who connect, monitor, educate, and lobby for change.
They say that there is a mounting pile of anecdotal evidence that the poor quality of air is negatively affecting the health of people who live in the area.
Clive who is used to a very active outdoors lifestyle says- “I’ve had pneumonia two times this winter. I’ve never lived somewhere with so much pneumonia. When I went to Vancouver ten years ago, my congested lungs cleared up. It’s a public health issue- people are dying.”
Clive has developed asthma, which affects his ability to function, and he is on an inhaler. Unless he takes precautions, his doctor warned him of developing COPD.
The Powseys hear too many stories from neighbours complaining of lung issues for themselves, and their children.
Clive says- “Children are hugely at risk. The fine particulates can cause structural change in children’s lungs. It’s the same chemicals as cigarette smoke.”
Sherelee adds- “We’re where we were thirty years ago with cigarettes.”
Jenell comments- “People think the air is clean, but they are waking up to the facts of harm. In Cumberland someone drives the kids to school- they won’t let them walk down Camp Road. Particulates get into your house. When you make that economic choice to burn wood, you are polluting your neighbour’s air. We have to not delude ourselves, who we are, what we represent. We have to make people aware, and look at regulation. We have worse air that Duncan and Port Alberni and they are moving ahead. We need to act too.”
When it is pointed out that other fuels cost more compared with wood, Shereelee asks- “Expensive relative to what? We are not in an expensive place to heat.” She adds- “We need to propose the idea of an “atmospheric commons”, of stewardship. We don’t think of air that way- there is a natural hierarchy of needs- air, water, food.”
Clive says- “I love this community. We have lots of friends here. I don’t want to move. I can always move, but a lot of people can’t.”
Jenell, a recent arrival from the Yukon, concludes- “I fear for my health. I wouldn’t have moved here if I knew.”
Earle Plain, Air Quality Meteorologist for the Ministry of the Environment says: “We have been monitoring air quality since June of 2011 for three parameters at Courtenay Elementary School- ground level ozone, nitrogen oxide and dioxide, and fine particulates less than 2.5 micrometres, or 1 millionth of a metre.
The problem only occurs during the cold months. Sources are anything we burn, any fuel- gas, oil or propane. The biggest sources are wood burning from backyards, forest harvesting, land development, and residential wood heat. In the Comox Valley, it is not so much industrial.
The rates are exceeding the provincial objectives, consistently for the annual average, and 24-hour average. There is good air in the spring and summer, but degraded in fall and winter. It is a concern. It raises a red flag.
There is a proven causal link between exposure to wood smoke and negative health effects.
Pollutants are trapped easily in the valley. It is the same situation in Cowichan and Port Alberni, which are all prone to inversions because of valley locations.
Air quality has no boundaries. We need everybody at the same table, and the right people- local, provincial. The next step is to get everyone in the same room.”
The Regional District
The next step is also on the mind of Michael Zbarsky Manager of Transit and Sustainability at the Comox Valley Regional District, where staff are scrambling to catch up and respond.
There have been meetings between Charmaine Enns from the Health Authority, Earle Plain from the Ministry of the Environment, and staff from the Comox Valley Regional District, to discuss forming a new committee. Zbarsky says: “The RD has never had anything to do with air quality- it has come up recently. We have no mandate- there are currently no functions or allocated resources. Do we establish a new service? Do we form a working group with the other municipalities, or our own group? Who has the responsibility? We don’t know yet. We do for some things, like building permits in rural areas which may impact wood stoves. That’s pretty much it. We are internally trying to figure out our options, and hope to be before local governments with a proposal in April or May.”
A solution in our area is complicated by the many jurisdictions.
Michael says- “Solutions are not easy. We need to get people to stop burning. But there are four governments and boards. Do we need a whole new regional air quality strategy? There will have to be regulation changes, and enforcement. There is an expectation to do something right now, but we are starting from “ground zero”, so it is unreasonable.”
So, clearing the air will take time. In the meantime, just… breathe.
What Can You do Right Now?
-If you have an old wood stove- pre 1992, trade it in for a new one, which will burn more efficiently and reduce emissions. New stoves emit around two grams of particulate per hour, older ones as much as 20 grams. If you do it before April 30, you may qualify for the $250 Regional District rebate program. See ad on page 2 for more info.
-Burn dried wood, preferably left to dry for a whole year.
-Don’t overload, and try not to dampen down the fire, which causes more smoke and emissions. It is more efficient to keep a hotter fire.
– Avoid using your wood stove if possible- other fuels are less likely to cause as much emission. (This point is heavily debated, as some point to large emissions from the process of accessing fuels like oil and natural gas, plus refining, and transporting. There is no magic perfect fuel, at the moment.)
-Be aware that if you are burning wood, anywhere, you are contributing to air pollution. Stay involved in upcoming efforts to reduce the problem, which affects every one of us.
– When burning wood, toxic gases are not as much of a problem as particulates. But that changes if you burn something else- don’t burn garbage- especially rubber or plastic.
There is much to be said for wood as a source of fuel. It is the least expensive option, the supply is local and plentiful- you can go out on your own and get a winter’s worth, along with some good exercise. Switching to another source could be prohibitively expensive for some people. We are deeply emotionally attached to our indoor and outdoor fires.
But this is serious stuff.
Somehow we will need to reduce our emissions of wood smoke, which means changing how we do things, our behaviour. How much of this will be voluntary, and how much regulated, remains to be seen.
The genie is out of the bottle, never to to be put back in. We need to act, for the health of our selves, neighbours, and kids.