There is no lower limit at which the air quality will not cause health problems. That’s the message Island Health’s medical officer Paul Hasselback told the Regional District Board at its inaugural regular meeting in Nanaimo Tuesday, Nov. 14.
Hasselback was invited by the RDN board to discuss further the health issues that arise from smoke from wood-burning appliances and wood stoves, and actions the regional district should take.
A Health Canada study has shown ambient fine particulate air pollution, or PM2.5, resulting from wood burning in the winter has strong adverse associations with cardiovascular health.
It affects multiple organs and causes both acute and chronic health effects such as lung cancer, congestive heart failure, arrhythmia, and stroke.
“So anything that we can do collectively to improve the quality of air, will reduce poor health outcomes,” Hasselback explained. “I say that because generally, the air quality in the regional district is actually pretty good.”
Hasselback pointed out that about 40 per cent of the population is in some sort of elevated risk group that makes the likelihood of developing a poor outcome higher. He wants the regional district to take preventative actions now.
There are several vocal advocates in the area who are quite concerned about wood smoke in general, said Hasselback.
He advised the RDN to look at developing an effective response to growing air quality concerns in the region.
“If there’s something that all of us share, it is that we breathe the air and we really don’t have control over what is in the air as we breathe it in,” said Hasselback. “So when that air quality is poor, we’re all going to be sharing all that.”
Ministry of Environment air quality meteorologist Earle Plaine was also present to discuss air quality monitoring taking place in the regional district. He explained that PM2.5 are very fine particulates that can’t be seen by the naked eye. The big concern about PM2.5, Plaine said, is that they are able get past the body’s natural defenses and settle in the deep recesses of the body, where they can cause health problems.
Using an emissions inventory done in the Comox Valley, Plaine said, the main PM25 sources are from open burning, land-clearing burning, agricultural burning, forest harvesting burning and space heating.
A study done in Nanaimo in 2010 using global monitoring, an instrument installed in the back of a car paired with a GPS, showed relatively clean air towards the north but some hot spots in the south such as Departure Bay.
In other places in the RDN, in 2013, the areas that typically generated multiple wood stove complaints, said Plaine, were the populated areas in French Creek, Hilliers, and towards the Cedar extension south of Nanaimo. A study done in January on Gabriola Island revealed high emissions coming from wood stoves, said Plaine.
Hasselback suggested some things the RDN can implement to put itself in a better position, such as introducing air quality bylaws that imposes stricter controls on the type and use of wood burning appliances; creating social marketing; and educational campaigns that provide awareness about health effects due to woodstove.
“It’s going to be a challenge for you in the future,” Hasselback told the RDN board. “But here’s an opportunity of being proactive moving forward.”
Parksville mayor and director Marc Lefebvre said after reading all the literature about the harmful health effects of smoke, “I put on my layman’s glasses and I sincerely believe, looking at all these issues cropping up, I think we should ban woodstoves and fireplaces.”
“To me that’s one of the only ways that I think, if we’re going to do anything substantial,” said Lefebvre, who added that in Parkskville, although backyard burning is controlled pretty well, with the “hundreds” of woodstoves and fireplaces in the city, at the present time they do “absolutely very little.”
“Bigger cities have done it… I think the City of Montreal has a seven- or eight-year timeframe that all woodstoves are banned,” said Lefebvre.