Reader says air quality index doesn’t identify health hazards

Canada’s Air Quality Health Index has a major flaw in that it is a poor indicator of the health implications of breathing polluted air.

Remarkably, only a few simple chemicals are monitored while the most dangerous chemicals in the air — complex toxins along with chemicals known to cause cancer and birth defects are omitted.

Common sense indicates that no monitoring program can be effective unless, at the very least, carcinogens are monitored.

Independent, more sophisticated monitoring of the air in a typical Alberta city identified growing levels of carcinogens such as smoke, formaldehyde, benzene and polycyclic compounds, 30 years ago.

However, even today the revised Air Quality Health Index omits carcinogens as well as the chemicals of most concern.

The reluctance of politicians and most environmental groups to support effective monitoring is because the most significant source of dangerous chemicals is wood burning in fireplaces, stoves, backyard fire pits, chimineas and in city parks and campgrounds.

Many people are involved in polluting the air, making this an unpopular issue.

No monitoring is really needed as the dangerous nature of wood combustion products has been known for centuries.

Dangerous chemicals are emitted in such high volumes that only a sense of smell is needed to identify a health concern. Again in historical times, if a fuel was dirty enough to coat a chimney and require the services of a chimney sweep then it was realized that neighbours’ lungs would also be coated with smoke, tar and creosote — with serious health implications.

Once cigarette smoke was identified as a health hazard, with no safe number of cigarettes that can be smoked and no safe exposure to second-hand smoke it was immediately realized that as both wood and tobacco are cellulose-based plant materials then wood smoke will be chemically very similar to cigarette smoke and will cause the same diseases.

For whatever reason, only a handful of people in Alberta made the connection.

We would be better off ignoring the Air Quality Health Index and relying on common sense as people did in the past.

Even very sophisticated monitoring fails to identify the true extent of the health impact of wood smoke as free radicals are not normal chemicals and escape detection.

In addition, no monitoring will identify the smoke and fumes inside a home that has a wood burning appliance.

Both current and historical data dating back 300 years identifies health problems linked to using a wood or coal burning fireplace or stove in a home.

A troubling statistic is that today 20% of women who develop lung cancer have never smoked.

This may be because women spend time at home, when the children are young, and are exposed to smoke from their own wood burning appliance or from neighbours.

Even the most sophisticated monitoring needs to be supplemented by medical studies relating air pollution to human health.

Remarkably, when wood burning surfaced in Canada in the 1970s no environmental impact studies were undertaken even though the British were spending millions of pounds to rid urban centres of coal and wood smoke.

Apart from the human costs, the British realized that the cost of treating smoke-related diseases would cripple their health care system.

New Zealanders thought they would escape the problems of the past by mandating EPA approved wood stoves in 1973 but this turned into a “complete fiasco” as “approved” stoves only reduce emissions by a token amount while fireplaces still pose a threat to neighbours.

Their mild climate has saved them from a meltdown of their health care system as they do not need to burn much wood, limiting the cost of treating smoke-related diseases to only $2,700 for each wood burning appliance per year.

Allowing for Alberta’s long, cold winters we can estimate the cost of each wood burning appliance at $15,000 per annum.

In the U.S., in the San Francisco Bay Area, only 10% of the residents burn wood to some degree but this has been enough to increase health care costs by a billion dollars annually.

Burning bans were tried this year and each wood smoke-free day was estimated to have saved the health care system $250,000.

Smoke-free initiatives, by this city, are long overdue even if it means paying up to $8,000, following the lead of municipalities in the Puget Sound area, for residents to convert from wood to natural gas.

Without some action on the part of the city, like so many North American municipalities, Red Deer will become a very unhealthy place in which to live.

Relying on ineffective air quality monitoring has meant that the city has not supported a single effective clean air initiative, believing that the city has escaped the problems that other municipalities face with regard to wood smoke, automobile and diesel truck pollution.

A new approach is needed and with no safe exposure to wood smoke and possibly diesel smoke, an important first step would be to examine ways to reduce smoke to the lowest practical level.

Alan Smith

Alberta director – Canadian Clean Air Alliance

Red Deer