Whether or not we actually celebrate Christmas, we’re often surrounded by images of a traditionally decorated living room during the holiday season. These scenes often include a lavishly decorated tree, neatly wrapped presents, stockings hung from a mantel, festoons of miscellaneous greenery, and of course… the log fire in the fireplace.
The comforting image of the fire on the hearth – so deeply imbedded in our psyche – deserves to be doused with a bucket of cold scientific facts.
There are many “inconvenient truths” about wood burning. Let’s start with one of them: no matter how dry and well-seasoned the fuel, wood smoke is a dangerous air pollutant. Sadly, wood burning is often unrecognized as a problem. It’s often socially acceptable to light a fireplace, even if it means blanketing a neighbourhood with harmful smoke.
However, just like tobacco smoke or wildfire smoke, wood smoke is comprised of numerous toxins that are detrimental to human health.
Perhaps the most dangerous component of wood smoke is fine particulate matter (PM2.5). These tiny particles are so small that they can pass through the lungs directly into the bloodstream, potentially affecting every major organ in the body. Both short-term and long-term exposure can result in significant adverse health effects.
Public Health Ontario identifies PM2.5 as one of the top three environmental carcinogens in the province.
Unfortunately, many of us are unaware of this and other toxins we are inhaling daily. One reason for this is that there are very few permanent government-run air quality stations. Air quality is monitored at merely 39 select locations in Ontario. Recorded levels of several pollutants (including PM2.5) are incorporated into an index (the AQHI), with forecasts frequently at the “low risk” end of the scale.
Truthfully, most of us don’t get to breathe the government’s “official” air. Air pollution can vary quite a bit throughout a city. Things like traffic, industry, construction, and – you guessed it – residential wood burning all create hotspots of local air pollution.
These hotspots are often unacknowledged and unrecorded in official estimates. This can provide false assurance that we’re always breathing clean air – masking the burden of air pollution and its sources. Many of us may not be aware how significant residential wood burning is, its effect on the community, and its impact on our health.
What can we do?
- Purchase an air quality monitor. While not cheap, more monitors in the community will help raise awareness about -- and action on -- air quality issues. For families, a PM2.5 air quality monitor might be useful for school projects, and for explaining the concept of “citizen scientist” to the kids.
- Support Sierra Club’s Breathe Easy campaign. Citizen science is a great way to understand air quality throughout the whole city. As part of Breathe Easy, we sample air quality everywhere, which allows us to detect air pollution hotspots that permanent air quality monitoring stations might miss.
- Change the conversation. Collectively, we have to change the way we view wood burning. You can start by educating the people in your life about the problem, and encouraging them to do the same.
- Kick the habit. Perhaps the kindest thing you could do for family, friends, and neighbours this holiday season is to NOT light that fireplace.
Peace, goodwill, clean air, and good health to all.
Alma Hyslop is a retired librarian, clean air activist, owner of two PM2.5 monitors, and proud supporter of Sierra Club Ontario’s BreatheEasy program.