While pollution alerts are sounding again in various French cities (Rennes, Nantes, Strasbourg, etc.), Environment Minister, Ségolène Royal, cancelled a controversial full ban on all fireplaces (even the most modern ones) that was expected in Paris and 435 municipalities on January 1, 2015. Following discussions with forest and wood industry professionals, the minister felt that the analysis supporting the ban was flawed, that the law would be ineffective and that other measures should be explored.
Studies showed that fireplaces generate 25% of the fine particle pollution in the region, at par with the transportation sector. These figures are disputed by the wood industry which claims that fireplaces cause only 5% of the fine particles while 40% come from transport. But while lobbies debate, pollution limits are breached in Paris, across France and elsewhere. 7.4 million French homes use wood as their main source of heating, up from 5.9 million in 1999. In Haute Savoie (French Alps), where the prevalence of wood burning is high, pollution is a serious problem. Similarly, in Canada, the city of Montreal estimates that its 85,000+ fireplaces generate close to 50% of the fine particle pollution in the city – far more then industry or transport. Faced with these problems, authorities in Montreal and France continue to warn about the dangers of pollution peaks, promote public transport, reduce speed limits, suggest to lower heating and ask not to use the …fireplace.
Impacts on Health
Most people underestimate the impact of smoke pollution. But coming from a fireplace, a campfire or a wood-stove, smoke contains high levels of contaminants including small particles (that enter deep into lungs), carbon monoxide (CO), and other irritants with significant health consequences in neighborhoods where wood burning is popular but also indoors. Environment Canada warns about indoor pollution from fine particles that make their way throughout the house and remain long after the fire stops. The World Health Organization (WHO) considers that fireplace smoke causes cancer, headaches, eye irritation, respiratory disease and heart conditions. Particularly at risk are children, older people and anyone suffering from asthma and allergies.
In Montreal, fireplace pollution contributes to the premature deaths of 1,500 people. In Paris, studies suggest it reduces the average life expectancy by 6 months in the region.
A Major Global Problem
The WHO estimates that 3 billion people cook and heat their homes through open fires and simple stoves burning wood, animal dung, crop waste, and coal. More than 4 million die every year due to the indoor air pollution that can be 100 times higher then acceptable levels for small particles. More then 50% of the fatalities are children under 5 because of pneumonia caused by the high levels of soot inhaled at home.
In poor countries people suffer from indoor smoke exposure because they lack better alternatives. It is odd that in the developed world, people who can afford better technology continue to use antiquated heating methods and expose themselves and others because of ignorance. Studies show that many people find the smell of burning wood pleasant and are not aware of its dangers. Surely, the authorities bear some responsibility for this.
Technology can Help
The heating performance and pollution levels are directly linked to the type of heating device, open fireplaces being the worst performing and the latest EPA certified pellet stoves are the best. According to experts, EPA certified fireplaces can reduce small particles pollution by 94% (versus old models that generate 70 grams per hour) through higher temperatures that improve combustion which dramatically reduces residual fumes and pollution. Agreeing with industry, Ségolène Royal confirms that technology can make major difference and should be deployed. She she prefers incentives to bans, like the €1,000 the Haute-Savoie region gives for the replacement of an open fireplace or wood-stove.
People enjoy fireplaces – there is something primal and comforting about them – the sound of the wood crackling, the light dancing around the room. It is also comforting to know that if a storm or other event that takes out the lights and the central heating, we still have a way to cook, give some light, and can heat our homes. And wood, if managed properly, is a renewable resource. But the price to be paid for an open fireplace or for antiquated wood-stoves is too high. The best of both worlds is to use fireplace stoves, that use technology that helps eliminate particulates, improves heating performance while still providing the pleasure and security of the old fashioned fireplace.
– New EPA certified stoves are 90%+ cleaner and much more efficient in terms of heating.
– An open fireplace offers a very poor heating performance but generates massive indoor and outdoor pollution. It is costly, wasteful and should be phased out.
– Never burn trash, plastic, paint, or wood that was painted/treated because this releases dioxins and other toxics.
– Ideally use hardwood that is properly dry. Avoid wet and soft woods. Not only are they more polluting but they also provide significantly less heat.
– Keep the installation clean and in good working condition. Regularly sweep the chimney.
– To cities and authorities: awareness raising campaigns are needed. Financial incentives can play an important role but regulation, controls and sanctions will eventually be needed. Helping households better insulate their homes will also go a long way.
– Addressing indoor air pollution from ancient cooking and heating practices (in developing countries and elsewhere) is complex problem but solutions are available. The technology exists and can be affordable if proper financing mechanisms are implemented. Here is an example from The Gold Standard Foundation.