The hazy future of the Yukon woodstove

The Yukon needs a clearer understanding of its air quality

Nothing is more authentically Yukon than a woodstove.

I love the sound of the wood crackling as a frosty cabin heats up. I enjoy the fall family outings to stock up the woodpile for winter. After an annoying day at work, splitting a few nicely dried spruce logs feels good.

The Yukoner who splits wood warms herself twice, I told my daughter as she unwrapped the six-pound maul Santa brought her a few years ago.

Furthermore, splitting wood saves money, has much lower carbon emissions than oil, and doesn’t require drilling on the North Slope.

Unfortunately, where there is fire there is also smoke.

Yukoners have been complaining about woodsmoke in Whitehorse for decades, especially when there’s an inversion during a cold snap. I have hazy memories of complaints in the 1970s when, the story goes, the government and the oil crisis encouraged people to install woodstoves but didn’t tell them to avoid burning garbage in the home-welded 50-gallon drum stove they’d installed in the basement of their Riverdale split-level.

Although we tend to shrug off air quality issues, public health officials will tell you air quality has surprisingly large effects on children, the elderly and a swathe of people in between. These effects aren’t just for people with respiratory issues such as asthma, as you might expect, but also hurt people with a wide range of cardiovascular problems too. A study in California conclusively linked smoke exposure during the state’s 2015 wildfires to spikes in emergency room visits for everything from heart attacks to strokes.

There is also much better understanding of different types of air pollution. For example, so-called PM2.5 particles, which are less than 2.5 microns wide (a fraction of the typical human hair), can go deep into your lungs and even pass into your bloodstream to cause breathing and heart trouble.

I was in Delhi a few years ago when I first became aware of the Air Quality Index (AQI) and the aqicn.org website. When I arrived, the city was smothered in the thickest smog I had ever seen. It turned out to be a perfect storm of farmers burning stubble in the nearby fields, growing use of diesel-powered cars, Diwali fireworks and unique wind conditions.

AQI readings of less than 50 are “good.” Readings of 101-150 are “unhealthy for sensitive groups.” The scale tops out at 300+, which is labelled “Hazardous – everyone should avoid outdoor exertion.”

Delhi was at 885 when I arrived.

After the recent woodsmoke-pocalypse in Vancouver, I checked the AQI for our region. Vancouver was over 200, in “Very unhealthy” territory, at various times.

You can also get values for Fairbanks, Anchorage and Juneau in Alaska, Fort St. John and other locales in British Columbia, and Norman Wells in the Northwest Territories. As I wrote this column, all were “Good,” except for a few “Moderates” in northern BC due to the woodsmoke.

Governments in these places provide citizens with nearly real-time data on specific air quality threats such as PM2.5 particles, ozone and nitrogen dioxide.

The Yukon is a blank space on the map.

It’s clearly a gap that needs filling. In recent years, we have ramped up awareness on cigarette smoke, radon gas and workplace air quality. Lots of people wear masks when working in dusty environments. But we seem to have a collective blind spot on the air we routinely breathe the rest of the time, all day long and year after year.

The good news is that we are making some progress. Since 2016, a monitoring station in downtown Whitehorse has been gathering the data needed for the public health warnings you may have seen. It uses the Air Quality Health Index, which is a Canadian approach that is a bit different from the AQI scale mentioned above.

The Yukon AQHI page publishes hourly data for Whitehorse, plus a forecast, on the 10-point AQHI scale. Unlike BC or the NWT, the Yukon only has one reporting station and it doesn’t provide data on specific risks such as PM2.5 or ozone.

Our federal, territorial and municipal governments completed a scientific study on the topic, based on data from November 2015 to April 2017, that they released in June.

It makes for sobering reading.

First, in four neighbourhoods the 24-hour averages exceeded air quality standards at various times in the winter. These are Kopper King, Takhini Trailer Park, Hidden Valley and Riverdale. Among other things, the charts show worrying spikes in PM2.5 particles.

Second, readings in Whitehorse’s neighbourhoods often exceeded the values from the downtown monitoring station, “demonstrating that this station, which is the source for the Air Quality Health Index, does not represent air quality throughout Whitehorse.”

Third, wood smoke is clearly the culprit. The concentrations peak in the morning and evening, when home woodstoves are most commonly used. And the concentrations are highest during cold weather.

Fourth, the study recommends that the air-quality monitoring program be extended two more years, and extended to other Yukon communities. This suggests that the monitoring stopped when the study ended in April 2017, more than a year ago, and has not been started in any other communities.

I hope that’s not true.

Of all the things the government should be spending its money on, monitoring the air that we all breathe deserves to be high on the list. The air quality in the Yukon is very good compared to most places in the world, most of the time. But if we have a persistent wintertime public health threat that affects children, the elderly and the chronically ill every year, we should take it more seriously than we have in the past.

The next steps, as you may have seen from a flyer in your mailbox, are some public meetings and an online survey in September.

We’ll see what our governments come up with as a response, and how fast they move. They may decide that all we need is greater woodsmoke awareness, or they may opt for stricter regulations. The latter are sure to be controversial as they force Yukoners to think through the consequences of our love affair with the woodstove.

I would encourage you to read the study, which you can find at hss.gov.yk.ca/woodsmoke.php, and to bring it up with your favourite city councillor or MLA.

In the meantime, don’t be the house with the smouldering green wood spewing dark smoke into your neighbours’ lungs. Get a modern certified woodstove, get your chimney swept regularly, burn well-seasoned dry wood and watch the smoke coming out of your chimney for telltale dark smoke suggesting you’re burning inefficiently.

Keith Halliday is a Yukon economist and author of the MacBride Museum’s Aurore of the Yukon series of historical children’s adventure novels. He is a Ma Murray award-winner for best columnist.

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