A recent report by the World Health Organization rated Canadian Cities as having some of the cleanest air in the world.
These are remarkable findings considering that Red Deer and Alberta’s cities, in general, have not even adopted the most basic measures to achieve clean air. Cities in other countries find that to keep urban air reasonably clean they need emission testing programs for private and commercial vehicles and most importantly, a ban on burning wood in homes and yards.
In reality, we do not have the cleanest air in the world; we have ineffective air quality monitoring in the form of the Air Quality Health Index (AQHI). The AQHI only measures a few simple chemicals, and common sense indicates that monitoring only a handful of chemicals provides little in the way of environmental protection.
It is very troubling, for example, that chemicals, known to cause cancer and present in the air in Red Deer, are omitted.
A further problem, is that the smoke and fumes from a wood burning stove, fireplace or fire pit, pose a threat to the health and lives of neighbours but will dissipate before reaching a monitoring unit and the problem will go undetected.
The accepted procedure, to identify the health impact of residential wood burning, as adopted by Montreal and Sweden Environment for example, is to monitor chimney emissions.
The Montreal data shows that burning wood pollutes the air as much in nine hours as an automobile pollutes in a year.
Putting this another way, having a wood burning neighbour is the pollution equivalent of having 200 automobiles running next to your home.
Put in these terms, it was not difficult for residents to appreciate the AQHI does not identify localized threats to their health and they have supported a ban on any further installation of log burning stoves and fireplaces.
To their credit, the Province of Quebec will chip in $6 million to convert existing log burning appliances to burn cleaner fuels.
The situation is less promising in Alberta as no municipality has banned the further introduction of wood burning appliances and the province has waived all air quality standards if residential wood burning is the source of the pollutants, so the standards, which are part of the AQHI are meaningless.
Hopefully no one will be mislead by the AQHI and will realize that we have the same pollution problems as any city that has neglected air quality. To achieve clean air we can simply borrow ideas from those municipalities, across Canada and around the world that care for the environment.
Canadian Clean Air Alliance