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In Quebec, wood heating kills three times more than road accidents

Natasha Kumar By Natasha Kumar Dec17,2023

A Health Canada study reveals that fine particles from residential combustion cause more premature deaths in Quebec than all other pollutants combined.

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In Quebec, wood heating kills three times more than road accidents

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In Quebec, the combustion of firewood is by far the sector that contributes the most to premature deaths linked to air pollution. (Archive photo)

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Fine particles from wood heating kill 1,400 people per year in Quebec, according to Health Canada estimates. This is three times more than the number of deaths attributable to road accidents. The health impacts of pollution generated by residential wood combustion across the province are estimated at $11 billion.

These data are taken from the study “Health Impacts of Air Pollution in Canada from Transportation, Industry and Residential Combustion”, which was published last February by Health Canada and whose results were up to 'here gone under the media radar.

The study includes modeled estimates of deaths linked to air pollution in the country based on the 2015 emissions inventory of different pollutants emitted by the 21 main sectors transportation, mobile equipment, industry and residential in Canada.

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The study of Health Canada charts the health impacts of air pollution from transportation, industry and residential combustion. (Archive photos)

The Health Canada document reveals that the combustion of firewood is the sector whose air pollutant emissions contributed the most to premature deaths (2,300 deaths) occurring in country in 2015.

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It's practically double the number deaths attributable to pollution generated by road transport (1,200 deaths).

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Fine particles emitted by wood heating caused more victims in Quebec in 2015 than anywhere else in Canada.

Of the 2,300 premature deaths linked to this source of pollution, 1,400 occurred in Belle-Province, or 60% of deaths.

Yet, in 2015, the population of Quebec represented only 23% of the Canadian population.

Click on this link to consult the Health Canada study(New window)

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Alone, fine particle emissions from residential wood combustion caused more premature deaths in 2015 in Quebec than all other pollutants put together.

This is explained in particular by the fact that fine particles are the most harmful pollutant for health among those generated by human activity.

< p class="StyledBodyHtmlParagraph-sc-48221190-4 hnvfyV">Among the main contaminants, it is fine particles that have the greatest impact on health, and by quite a long way, if we compare them to other contaminants such as nitrogen dioxide, volatile organic compounds and sulfur dioxide, indicates in an interview with Radio-Canada Dr. Philippe Robert, doctor in public health and preventive medicine at the CIUSSS de la Capitale-Nationale.

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The interest of the Health Canada study, underlines the one who co-wrote the report “My environment, my health”, is to having looked at all the main air pollutants and having assessed their respective impacts on health in terms of mortality and morbidity.

This shows once again that in Quebec, wood heating, even if we consider other contaminants, is the main source of health effects if we compare with industries or with transport, for example.

A quote from Dr Philippe Robert, specialist in public health

Health Canada also estimated the socioeconomic value of health impacts associated with pollution generated by transportation, industry and residential combustion.

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Dr Philippe Robert (right) co-wrote the report “My environment, my health”. (Archive photo)

To do this, the federal institution took into account different variables, including medical costs, reduced productivity at work , pain and suffering, risk of death and other consequences of increased health risks.

In 2015, the socioeconomic value of burning firewood reached $11 billion in Quebec, more than for all other pollutants combined, including road vehicles (3.1 billion).

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Dr. Robert clarifies that the socio-economic value of pollutants calculated by Health Canada should not be equated with health care costs or economic losses. Rather, it is the sum of the amounts that Canadians would be willing to pay to reduce the risks associated with a particular contaminant.

This is not x27;are not necessarily tangible costs that the government pays or that we pay through taxes or for the economy. It's really more of a value that we would theoretically be willing to pay to […] reduce the risk of death, he explains.

Families for Clean Air (FAP), a non-profit organization that fights against air pollution caused by wood burning, believes that the Health Canada study undoes the false perception that industries and automobile would be the main sources of premature deaths linked to air pollution in Quebec.

This is the first study we have from Health Canada where we have a sectoral analysis of health impacts and where the main culprit stands out, underlines the president and CEO of FAP, Daniel Vézina.

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Daniel Vézina calls for action to fight against pollution generated by wood heating.

We no longer talk about fine particles which have no identifiable source. That is to say, we are able to identify, with current inventories, that [residential combustion] is responsible or would be responsible for 1,400 deaths per year. Listen, it's big, it's 3 times more deaths than road accidents in 2022, he points out.

According to the latest report from the Société de l'assurance automobile du Québec, 392 people died on the province's roads in 2022.

Wood heaters, which are used for ambient purposes, are the white elephant in our living room. The main culprit in terms of air pollution is there.

A quote from Daniel Vézina, president and CEO of the organization Familles pour l'air pur

While recognizing that Health Canada's data obtained by modeling contains a lot of uncertainty, Daniel Vézina believes that they are sufficiently convincing to require government and public health authorities to tackle without further delay the pollution generated by residential heating.

But even if we divide the emissions data by two, at $11 billion, it still remains an issue enormous health for Quebec. We need to invest a lot in terms of prevention and quickly to tackle this source, he insists.

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Main source of fine particle emissions in winter, residential wood heating contributes greatly to smog episodes. (File photo)

Mr. Vézina judges that the institutions are a little slow to react on the issue of wood heating. A situation which could be partly explained by the desire of public health authorities to have the most precise data possible before proposing interventions.

I don't think it's the best route to have. We already have red lights lit everywhere. In epidemiological terms, it is certain that these are not real deaths, they are deaths on paper, but we have enough scientific data to say that there will be a staggering number of deaths. this year which will be linked to air pollution caused by wood heating, argues the president and CEO of Families for Pure Air.

According to him, beyond awareness campaigns, it would ultimately be necessary to ban wood heating, at least in areas where homes are connected to the electricity network, except during power outages and emergency situations.

In the vast majority of cases, points out Mr. Vézina, burning wood is intended more to provide atmosphere and a decor that heats the interior of a residence.

I find that there is something a little morally unacceptable in that, to see that it has so many health impacts on communities, on the citizens of municipalities, cities, and that it is a source of pollution which is mainly linked to the atmosphere. It's a bit of a drag, he laments.

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In Quebec, residential wood combustion caused a greater number of premature deaths in 2015 (1,400) than transport road (400). (File photo)

Dr. Philippe Robert does not believe that outright banning wood heating is the solution. He instead calls for replacing old stoves with certified devices, which emit much less fine particles into the atmosphere.

This is why he invites the municipalities of the Metropolitan Community of Quebec to imitate Quebec City by adopting a by-law aimed at prohibiting the use of non-certified heating devices. In Quebec, this ban will come into force on September 1, 2026.

Elsewhere in Quebec, other municipalities have adopted similar regulations. This is the case, among others, of the City of Montreal.

Philippe Robert is also of the opinion that cities must offer subsidies to encourage owners of non-compliant devices to obtain a certified one.

There is still a cost [associated with that] then we are talking about the cost of living at the moment, therefore, to subsidize, to help the cities so that cities can subsidize people, especially less well-off households, to do so, I think that is important, he argues.

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The installation of ambient wood fireplaces like this one will be prohibited in Quebec as of January 1st. (File photo)

Like Daniel Vézina, the doctor specializing in public health and preventive medicine recognizes that there are still efforts to be made in terms of awareness.

There are opportunities to better inform people about the impacts that wood heating can have on the health of the people who use it, but also on others. We remember that approximately 10 to 15% of houses are heated with wood. So, it's not the majority. On the other hand, particle emissions in the air will affect everyone, he recalls.

Radio-Canada requested a interview with the national director of public health of Quebec, Dr. Luc Boileau. The Department of Health and Human Services, however, declined our request.

By email, spokesperson Marie-Claude Lacasse mentions that in recent years, the Ministry has collaborated with the National Institute of Public Health of Quebec and the Ministry of the Environment, the Fight against Climate Change, of Wildlife and Parks to establish a portrait of residential firewood combustion.

Public health is collaborating in particular on a research project documenting the impact of wood heating on air quality in the municipality of Saint-Sauveur, in order to better identify possible courses of action, indicates Ms. Lacasse.

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Natasha Kumar

By Natasha Kumar

Natasha Kumar has been a reporter on the news desk since 2018. Before that she wrote about young adolescence and family dynamics for Styles and was the legal affairs correspondent for the Metro desk. Before joining The Times Hub, Natasha Kumar worked as a staff writer at the Village Voice and a freelancer for Newsday, The Wall Street Journal, GQ and Mirabella. To get in touch, contact me through my 1-800-268-7116

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