Biomass Combustion: Harmful on any Scale

- by Cathy Baiton, Only Clean Air

[[{"type":"media","view_mode":"media_large","fid":"208","attributes":{"alt":"","class":"media-image","style":"width: 350px; height: 289px; margin: 1px 10px; float: left;"}}]]In the same way that industrial biomass combustion can seriously jeopardize public health and the environment in communities, residential and smaller-scale commercial biomass burning also have adverse impacts on health and air quality in neighborhoods.

In many cities and towns, increased wood burning, both indoor and outdoor, has become a potentially year-round source of urban and semi-rural air pollution, whether from highly polluting outdoor wood boilers, needless “recreational” outdoor burning in warmer seasons, or avoidable fireplace or wood stove smoke in cooler months.

Residential smokestacks have even fewer pollution controls than industrial technologies, and people are exposed so directly in the confines of an urban neighborhood, where smoke particles can be trapped between trees, buildings, and other structures and can seep easily into nearby houses, even through closed windows and doors. Studies have found that as much as 70 percent of outdoor smoke pollution can enter surrounding homes, posing health risks to neighbors. Indoors, particle concentrations can build to levels that are dangerously high.

Julie Bamonte Burgo, a clean air activist in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, notes that, “In Allegheny County, wood burning smoke accounts for one third of our citizens’ pollution complaints,” and points to the great need in her own and other areas for an ongoing campaign aimed at increased public awareness of the health effects of wood smoke, and of its link to higher rates of heart attacks, strokes, asthma and other lung diseases, hospital admissions, and even early deaths. Julie recalls how at one time her family’s home, due to neighborhood smoke pollution, “was like a gas chamber, it was so bad; even with all the plastic on the doors and purifiers running . . . the smoke would just build up in our house.”

While infants, children, expectant mothers, the elderly, or people with allergies, asthma, or other health concerns are at a special risk to even low levels of neighborhood wood smoke, no amount of smoke exposure can be considered safe for anyone. The ability of even healthy people to safely enjoy outdoor activity is also limited by the presence of any smoke pollution. In fact, the World Health Organization’s International Agency forResearch on Cancer (IARC) now classifies particulate matter in outdoor air pollution as a Group 1 human carcinogen - placing PM in the same category as other cancer-causing agents like asbestos and tobacco smoke.

According to the American Lung Association, wood heating is the greatest residential source of particulate matter in the United States - and it is Canada’s largest single source of particle pollution, according to Environment Canada. That the minority of homes heated with wood contributes such a large portion of PM in both countries helps to indicate wood burning’s potentially negative impacts in residential areas, and gives a sense of why even one wood burning appliance can degrade the air quality of an entire neighborhood, as the California Air Resources Board has found. When even two or more new wood stoves are used in a residential area, the harmful pollution is multiplied. Even in areas that have good overall air quality monitor readings, some people can still experience very unhealthy air if they live or work near localized sources of commercial or residential wood burning emissions.

A 1999-2002 Environment Canada study found that, especially during the winter wood-heating season, concentrations of PM 2.5 and pollutants like dioxins and furans and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) were much higher in a residential area impacted by wood burning than in downtown Montreal - even with all of the heavy traffic there - with concentrations being highest during winter nights and on weekends. The PAH pollution levels in the smoke-impacted suburban neighborhoods measured twice as high as those downtown; the PM 2.5 pollution was ten percent higher and more; and in the wood-burning suburban neighborhood, there were 1.7 times as many dioxins and furans than in downtown Montreal. Another 2007 study found that in a wood-burning neighborhood east of the city, there were up to five times as many days of poor air quality than were measured downtown.

In the years since the earlier study, numerous wood stove exchanges in Canada, the US, and beyond, have replaced older wood stoves with newer ones - with little or no real improvement in air quality. Many of these stove exchanges have been endorsed by health and clean air organizations that could - and really should - instead be leading the way in efforts to transition away from dirty energy sources including wood combustion. In British Columbia, where many such exchanges have taken place, thetotal provincial emissions of PM 2.5 from wood heating has not decreased. Rather, the fractional contribution was larger in 2012 than it was in 2003.

New wood stoves, as the Quebec Lung Association has argued vigorously, are no answer to the problem of residential smoke pollution. Last year the City of Montreal, which in 2009 banned new installations of wood stoves, announced plans to prohibit the use of existing wood burning stoves and fireplaces by the end of 2020. This plan sets a high standard that would benefit air quality and public health in any community. It also reflects the need for government leaders to consider a key recommendation of a 2011 UN report which recommended phasing out traditional wood burning stoves in wealthy nations to help reduce global emissions of climate-forcing pollutants including black carbon; that report demonstrated that wood burning, along with diesel vehicles, is a major source of black carbon in industrialized countries.

Bill Lewin, a British Columbia resident whose family has suffered due toongoing smoke from an “EPA certified” stove, wrote previously to his province’s Environment Minister about the pollution that resulted in his community after some residents had chosen to heat with wood “because of the false claims of health departments, government agencies, and the wood burning industry, which claim that the new stoves burn cleanly. Unfortunately for us,” Bill explains in the letter he has shared for the purpose of this article, “this has not proved to be the case.” Bill’s letter continues: “I have contacted many authorities to help us - but to no avail. As a matter of fact, what happens is one agency or person says to contact another agency or person, and it just goes round and round in circles.”

Like many victims of residential biomass pollution, Bill and his family have found that a lack of awareness among public officials is a frustrating stumbling block to progress and to urgently-needed relief from toxic smoke. For the past several years, the health of his family and his neighborhood has been placed at risk, and yet, as Bill’s letter states, the problem has been treated as “a non-issue” by authorities. After contacting four law firms, Bill was informed by one of them that “if they were to take on our case it would cost $25,000 just to get it off the ground - with no guarantee that the judge was not a wood burner himself. Where,” Bill’s letter asks, “is our right to breathe?”

Why should any sector of the biomass energy industry be permitted to place business interests above the health and well-being of individuals, families, and communities - often while being given government incentives and funding? Increased pollution problems following the rise in wood heating that began about two decades ago, seem to have demonstrated that burning wood for energy within the confines of closely-packed, urban neighborhoods has been an experiment that has failed miserably.

Yet government-supported, so-called “Burn Wise” (EPA) or “Burn ItSmart” (Environment Canada) programs enable the residential biomass industry to persist in its promotion of the ultimately unattainable goal of “efficient, clean wood burning,” in a way that seems to parallel the industrial biomass industry’s continued promotion of the idea of “biomass done right” in “smaller and more energy-efficient” facilities. It is simply not possible to burn wood cleanly, and yet biomass plants keep being built, threatening the health of communities and forests, while in neighborhoods, the continued sale and installation of wood burning appliances keeps putting the health of people at risk.

Rather than challenge this problematic pattern, mainstream media sources appear to generally accept the notion of biomass burning as “green energy,” and often erroneously describe various forms of biomass burning in the same positive light as clean, renewable energy sources - even though these differ entirely from biomass by being emissions-free. Much of the general public and, all too often, public officials and decision makers, are not fully informed about the health impacts of biomass burning and the reasons why it is not the “clean, green, carbon-neutral” solution that both the residential and industrial biomass industries have claimed.

In its Public Policy Statement on Energy, the American Lung Association recommends that wherever possible, “Individuals should avoid burning wood” due to the health hazards of smoke pollution. In its policy statement on biomass, the American Lung Association of New England affirms that the issue of people being impacted by trespassing biomasssmoke must be taken more seriously by authorities, and asserts in its Biomass Position Statement (2009) that, “as in the area of secondhand tobacco smoke, the right to breathe healthy air is primary. It supersedes any alleged ‘right’ to burn wood.”

From this perspective, both small-scale residential and commercial biomass pollution and industrial biomass pollution are issues of environmental justice. For the same essential reasons that waste incinerators and wood-burning power plants should not be allowed to compromise public wellness and the health of ecosystems, it is equally necessary for residents of all communities to have full legal protection from the harmful impacts of wood burning pollution in residential environments. 

Biomass burning is harmful on any scale - and what is urgently needed is a strong commitment by all levels of government to support and invest in renewable, non-combustible energy sources that are truly clean, along with improved public policies that will provide people with full protection from all forms of biomass pollution and will help to ensure everyone’s right to breathe clean air.

People everywhere deserve the right to live in communities that are biomass smoke-free, where all have equal access to clean air for better health, now and into a more sustainable future.