Outdoor Air Quality

One would think that living in a place like the Cowichan Valley, surrounded by trees, mountains and ocean, that we would not have any air quality issues, but this is not the case.

When we hear the term "air pollution", most would envision crowded cities or heavy industry. However, what many do not know is that particulate pollution (smoke) is an increasingly serious health risk for many parts of BC, and the Cowichan Valley is no exception. In fact, smoke is the number one complaint to the Ministry of Environment across this province.

Particulates, or particulate matter, also known as PM2.5 or PM10, refers to microscopic particles (2.5 or 10 microns in diameter) which, when inhaled, penetrate deeply into the lungs and interfere with the breathing process. Children and seniors are at greatest risk from particulates, which have now clearly been shown to cause increases in respiratory problems, use of medications, hospital visits, and mortality in individuals suffering from chronic heart and lung disorders.

Although there are a number of sources of particulates, those produced by the combustion of organic materials are considered to be the most harmful. In rural communities, land clearing fires from development and backyard burning and wood heating can raise airborne particulates to levels which exceed those produced by heavy industry - often directly exposing homes and schools.

When burning is unregulated, it allows for the burning of a wide variety of synthetic materials that generates staggeringly high concentrations of very dangerous chemicals and compounds, including dioxins and PCB’s.

In fact, according to a study by environmental officials in New York, burning 10 pounds of garbage in a backyard barrel produces the same amount of air pollution as burning 400,000 pounds of trash in a modern incinerator.*

"A recent study by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency found that, in the last two years, more dioxins and furans were produced by backyard trash burning than from all other sources combined, including from paper mills, vehicles, electric utilities and municipal incinerators...

Dioxins are some of the most deadly chemicals known to mankind and extremely small amounts can poison entire water supplies. The United States Environmental Protection Agency Dioxin Re-Assessment estimates that 19 percent of total quantifiable annual releases for 1995 of dioxins/furans are generated by residential burning of household garbage.

For dioxins, the predominant pathway to most humans is air-to-leaf, followed by bioconcentration in animal fat. Since the majority of dioxin intake by humans comes from food sources, then dioxin emissions from burn barrels impact a wide population when they land on feed crops and are concentrated in the bodies of farm animals."**

Unfortunately, because of the cost and complexity, dioxins and other toxic substances are not monitored or measured in our air, water or soil environment, such that we have no way of knowing what the impact might be on the long-term health of people and animals in our community.

Biomass – life resource or waste material?
The purpose of this section is to raise awareness of the value of biomass (organic material), and the role it plays in our ecology.

Toxic Threat?
To fully understand this air quality issue, one really has to begin by looking at the ground. When plants grow, they extract water and nutrients from the soil and produce fibre that we see as grass, trees, etc. As plants age, leaves, twigs, branches, etc., fall and become food for plants, insects, micro-organisms, as well as new soil. This fallout is biomass, or ‘life matter.’

Biomass plays an important role in water conservation because it shades the ground and protects it from wind, thereby reducing evaporation. Biomass also reduces soil erosion as it slows the movement of water, particularly on sloped surfaces. While considerable fossil fuels are used to get rid of biomass ‘waste’, biomass can be strategically used to improve just about any site by helping improve forest health, minimize the risk of fire, increase biodiversity and reduce runoff, all with less cost and effort.

When we remove biomass, we interrupt the natural cycle. When we burn biomass, we dump this ‘waste’ into the air in the form of harmful particles and gases and ignore the essential role biomass plays in our ecology.

There are valuable uses for organic residue, and numerous business opportunities could exist if burning were regulated. By redefining our concept of ‘waste’, we can learn to utilize the value of biomass, and stop turning a natural resource into a health hazard.

Some Uses for Biomass ’Waste'    (in no particular order)

Feeding the forest!

  • soil enhancement
  • erosion control


  • poles and posts
  • trellises, arbors, etc.
  • composite wood products
  • firewood/kindling/pellet fuel


  • blueberries, raspberries, etc.
  • equestrian arenas
  • livestock bedding
  • landscaping

Aquatic/terrestrial site remediation
  • temporary roads/trail building


  • paper
  • stick furniture, carving, crafts ect.
  • sculpture

Bio Fuels:

  • fuel for cogeneration
  • ethanol production


  • carbon and nitrogen source

Rural Air Quality Forum
On February 23, 2006, the CGC hosted a public forum on rural air quality. Sponsored by the Ministry of the Environment, this meeting brought together representatives from non-profit groups, federal and provincial environment agencies, municipal government, bylaw enforcement, BC Lung Association, regional health, as well as a retired respirologist, researchers and concerned individuals.

The particular focus of their attention was on smoke pollution from outdoor burning and poor wood- heating practices. The goals of this meeting were to:

  1. Develop a position statement on behalf of the group that could be used by communities to invoke affirmative action across the province,
  2. Identify potential/viable actions to abate smoke pollution, and
  3. Network and exchange information.

Position Statement This group represents a credible body, which formally acknowledges that:

  • Outdoor burning and poor wood heating practices place large numbers of people and the environment in BC communities at serious risk from exposure to particulate matter and a complex array of chemicals;
  • There is ample global, local, scientific and health knowledge to support this;
  • In addition to health care and absenteeism, this costs society in many ways not presently being accounted for;
  • The inhalation/ingestion of dioxins, PCB’s, bisphenol-A, heavy metals etc. dispersed through the combustion of synthetic materials is cause for concern;
  • An equivalent level of environmental health risk would not be tolerated elsewhere in society;
  • There is support at the federal, provincial, and community levels, but typically a general reluctance to act at the municipal level; and
  • Biomass is a resource that can be utilized for economic and ecological benefit, instead of being burned.

Download the complete document (Particulate Matter Position Statement.pdf)

What About Wood Heat?
Wood can be a viable and renewable source of energy for heating. However, poor wood heating practices, such as slow fires or using improper fuel (wet/green wood, construction waste, driftwood, etc.) produce high concentrations of particulates and toxins, often at the immediate expense of our neighbours.

Even with older stoves, proper wood heating practices alone can reduce emissions by as much as 50 per cent! Wood stoves certified in Canada under CSA B415.1 or EPA equivalent, burn up to 90 per cent cleaner (pellet stoves even better) and use less fuel than other units. Some stoves may carry a CSA label for fire safety but only those stamped B415.1 are rated for low emissions.

Wood Heating Workshops
Cowichan residents are concerned about air quality and proper wood heating. This was demonstrated by the 100 people who attended two BurnitSmart Workshops hosted by the CGC.

BurnitSmart is a program developed under a collaboration of all levels of  the government, the hearth industry, national partners and local organizations. The BurnitSmart website is no longer available online; however, you can get more information about buring and woodstoves on the Government of Canada website. There is also a page on Clean Air Online

It is our goal to continue to host sessons on proper wood heating practices. Check our workshop page and the local papers during the heating season for upcoming workshops.

For more information on Outdoor Air Quality, check out these interesting sites:

Open Burning -Your Health

Wood Energy Technology Transfer
Reach for Unbleached
British Columbia Lung Association
Cowichan Bio-Diesel Co-op

** Source: http://www.c2p2online.com/main.php3?session=&section=142&doc_id=283