Here’s a skill-testing question. You live in a small northern city where the Chief Medical Officer of Health has done two reports full of troubling data about woodsmoke and air quality. Which of the two projects below requires an application to YESAB, the environmental assessment agency?
Option A, the new Wildlife Viewing Structure at Paddy’s Pond?
Or Option B, the big wood-fuelled heating system for the new City Hall complex, whose smokestack will be right in the middle of town?
The answer is A. The smokestack does not require a YESAB application.
At 11:00 a.m. on Feb. 21, when I started writing this column, this struck me as odd. The Air Quality Health Index for Whitehorse was 5 out of 10. That’s “orange” or “moderate risk.” The system warned Whitehorse residents with breathing issues to consider reducing or rescheduling strenuous activities outdoors if they were experiencing symptoms.
Think about that. The government is issuing air-quality health warnings in Whitehorse, the wilderness city. It was only -19°C and the wind was blowing. It would have been worse if we’d been sitting in an inversion during a cold snap where the wood smoke sits for days in the still, frigid air.
It also struck me as ironic that supporters of the new City Hall project keep talking about how the new building will reduce carbon emissions into the global atmosphere. They don’t mention local woodsmoke emissions.
The 2018 edition of those Whitehorse air quality studies found “exceedances of national and local air quality standards for fine particulate matter, both in the long term (an annual average) and the short term (a daily average). Both of these can “cause health problems.”
The air was particularly bad in Kopper King, Hidden Valley, Takhini Trailer Park and Riverdale. The report was based on data from multiple temporary sensors installed around town. It found that many of these “had higher pollution levels than were being recorded at the downtown air quality monitoring station – demonstrating that this station, which is the source for the Air Quality Health Index, does not represent air quality throughout Whitehorse.”
This means the “Moderate Risk” rating I saw on Feb. 21 probably understated the risk in some neighbourhoods.
This is a major health issue. There is massive scientific data that poor air quality causes all kinds of ailments. The World Health Organization says “air pollution is one of the greatest environmental risks to health,” going on to list its links to strokes, heart disease, lung cancer, plus chronic and acute respiratory diseases including asthma.
Air Quality Ontario says seniors, children and people exercising are at higher risk.
The US Environmental Protection Agency says that fine particles, known as PM2.5, pose the greatest health risk. PM2.5 refers to Particulate Matter less than 2.5 micrometres across (for comparison, a human hair is about as wide as 30 such particles). You breathe PM2.5 particles into your lungs, and then they are small enough to pass into your bloodstream and circulate everywhere in your body. Scientists, for example, are studying the links between PM2.5 and kidney disease.
The 2018 study points out that the Canadian standard for daily averages of PM2.5 was 28 micrograms per cubic meter, with different Whitehorse neighbourhoods hitting double that level. Some readings for specific hours in the day were sometimes twenty times higher.
So back to the skill-testing question, and whether we should be worried about the big new biomass heating system going in at Second and Steele.
I contacted Catherine Elliott, Acting Chief Medical Officer of Health, to ask her opinion. She told me that the Yukon’s air quality is generally good, but can be “highly variable” across time and space. Someone who lives next to a smoke source in one location might have poor air quality during an inversion, while someone else’s air quality might be quite good. Elliott also suggested that modern, high-temperature equipment, operated within existing biomass regulations, was not a major issue.
I then asked YESAB about why no YESAB application was required, and was told that “municipal governments do not fall within the definition of a decision body” under the relevant act.
City of Whitehorse officials told me that the new system has to be manufactured and tested to comply with multiple regulations and standards for solid fuel heating appliances, such as CSA B366.1-11 and CSA B415.1-10. The equipment’s computerized controls also monitor and adjust burn parameters during operation.
While they were not aware of government regulation or testing of ongoing emissions, they said the system was designed to operate at “high efficiency and a clean burn.”
They added that they think the new system will cost $10,000 per year less to operate than the current City Hall heating system, despite heating a building twice the size.
If they buy wood chips or pellets from a local supplier, City Hall and some of the other institutional biomass systems planned or in operation will create some Yukon jobs.
But even if we should not be too worried about the new smokestack on City Hall, it turns out we should be worried about our own wood stoves.
That 2018 study noted that 70-80 percent of Riverdale PM2.5 came from wood smoke. This pollution tended to spike in the morning and after work, with a smaller spike mid-day. These times coincide with when the 15 percent of Whitehorse homeowners with wood stoves generally light their fires.
Meanwhile, the Guardian reported on an English study showing wood burning in homes is the “single biggest source of small particle air pollution in the UK” despite just one home in twelve having a wood-burning heater. A Greek study found wood-burning stoves in urban areas were responsible for “almost half of people’s exposure to cancer-causing chemicals.”
A group called Doctors and Scientists Against Wood Smoke Pollution, whose name sums up their point of view, provides an extensive catalog of studies about cancer-causing chemicals, small particulate pollution and emissions labels not reflecting real-world performance with aging stoves run by real people.
It was enough to make me glance reproachfully at my own wood stove.
So what does all this mean for Yukoners?
While it would probably be a good thing if the government tested large wood-burning heating systems on an ongoing basis, the local nature of wood smoke pollution means it is mostly up to each of us.
If you own a wood stove, pay attention to the Burn Better campaign from the Chief Medical Officer of Health and various levels of government: burn dry, seasoned wood; don’t let the fire smolder; clean your ashes frequently; don’t burn glossy paper, cardboard or painted wood; and test your wood with a moisture meter to ensure it is 20 per cent moisture or less.
Depending on your burning habits and those of your neighbours, you might also think about buying some quality air filters for your home and workplace.
It’s not going to be easy to figure out what to do about the several thousand residential wood stoves installed in Whitehorse, but in the meantime it would be helpful if the government budgeted to put those temporary air quality sensors in Kopper King, Takhini, Riverdale and elsewhere permanently online so we had real data on the air we breathe every day.
Keith Halliday is a Yukon economist, author of the Aurore of the Yukon youth adventure novels and co-host of the Klondike Gold Rush History podcast. He is a Ma Murray award-winner for best columnist.