Wood burning is a cultural malady and a "pandemic" in slow motion

The hyper-local nature of wood smoke pollution may make small communities like Gabriola Island BC hotspots for COVID-19.

With COVID-19 spreading rapidly around the world, and awareness of how air pollution may increase the risk of contracting the virus and exacerbate lung conditions for those with the infection, it's clear that wood burning on Gabriola Island and nearby is a cultural malady. Nothing here has changed. Although there is now a ban on outdoor burning, wood stove use is rampant and it is perhaps worse given how many people are working from home, off school, etc.

According to Daniel Bings, with the Ministry of Environment and Climate Change Strategy.

There is strong evidence that exposure to air pollution increases susceptibility to respiratory viral infections by decreasing immune function.
In other words, poor air quality may increase the number of COVID-19 cases and make these cases more severe.
In large cities like LA where air pollution is also a major problem, public health experts are concerned.

“There’s lots of evidence that air pollution increases the chances that someone will get pneumonia, and if they get pneumonia, will be sicker with it,” said Aaron Bernstein, interim director of the Center for Climate, Health, and the Global Environment at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. “We don’t have direct evidence of that with COVID, but I would be surprised if air pollution did not affect risk for COVID infection and the severity of illness.”

Local governments in the Central Vancouver Island area have now banned open burning and are discouraging people from using their wood stoves to keep air pollution levels as low as possible.

That said, nothing has really changed. In particular, Gabriola Island still reeks of wood smoke almost everywhere you go and pollution levels on the island, and in the immediate region, are amongst the highest in Canada once again. And all of this in the warmest, most temperate part of the country. The island is also the home to one of BC's oldest populations with a median age of close to 60.

Take a look at the following two maps. The first map shows current temperatures in C across the country as of 20:30 on March, 26, 2020. It is 8C on the island.

The second map shows PM 2.5 air pollution from wood stoves. You should note that Gabriola Island has levels that are amongst the highest in the country and far in excess of safe levels.

These high levels will make it very difficult for people with COVID-19 to recover, but are also a perennial problem that weakens immune function, impairs cardiac and lung function, and increases cancer risk substantially. COVID-19 is a wake up call on many levels and perhaps people will begin to see the damage that their cultural practice of burning wood has on their own health and members of their communities. 

For more information on this overall issue, check out the following story on CBC on March 20, 2020 here.

Update: March 27

Here's a graph of PM2.5 air pollution from one of our PurpleAir sensors on Gabriola Island. This pattern is typical of wood stove emissions as we have described in multiple places on our blog.

For comparison purposes, here's a graph from another PurpleAir sensor located in downtown Victoria for the same time period.


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