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Wilson’s Social Conquest of Earth (PGAQ #442)

 In 2012, the famous biologist Edward O Wilson wrote a book called “The Social Conquest of Earth” where he explains how “group selection” affects the way that humans treat each other. This applies to wood burners in crowded areas.

Some interesting passages are…

P 163 Cheaters may win within a group, acquiring a larger share of the resources, but groups of cheaters lose to groups of cooperators.

P 192 Cultural universals of social behaviour include cooking, fire-making and property rights.

P 196 The use of campfires, enclosed dwellings and warm clothing allowed humans to survive and reproduce in parts of the world where survival through the winter would otherwise have been impossible.

P 242 Selfish individuals beat altruistic individuals, but groups of altruists beat groups of selfish individuals.

P 245 Unless people are psychopaths, they automatically feel the pain of others. 

P 247 Humans are prone to be moral and to do the right thing because natural selection has favored those interactions of group members benefiting the group as a whole.

P 249 All normal people are capable of true altruism.

P 251 Authentic altruism is based on a biological instinct for the common good of the community put in place by group selection, wherein groups of altruists in prehistoric times prevailed over groups of individuals in selfish disarray.

Wood burners in crowded areas are selfish people who ignore the harm done to others. Any considerate person would stop burning wood when offered modern clean heating methods. Like Wilson claims, “Unless you are a psychopath, you would automatically feel the pain of others.

Wood Smoke Research Opportunities (PGAQ #441)

Ethics and human rights forbid using wood smoke in experiments on humans, but recent economic troubles present excellent opportunities for research in environmental epidemiology. Many people worldwide have started to burn wood to heat homes and the air quality in many cities has thus worsened. Promoters of biomass burning worldwide have persuaded many people that wood is clean, green, renewable and cheap, especially in areas where trees are readily available. There are also economic opportunities in selling ever improving wood burners.

For a recent example of research into wood smoke note the following where Dr Fay Johnston and team compared the two cities of Launceston and Hobart in Tasmania, Australia, one which reduced wood burning and the other that didn’t. Check out http://www.media.utas.edu.au/general-news/all-news/reduction-in-air-pollution-from-wood-heaters-associated-with-reduced-risk-of-death. 

“New research has found that deaths from all-causes, but particularly cardiovascular and respiratory disease, could be significantly reduced with a decrease in wood-smoke. The project was led by Dr Fay Johnston, a GP and environmental epidemiologist at the University of Tasmania.”

Fairbanks, Alaska and the nearby community of North Pole also present excellent though unfortunate opportunities to study how wood smoke affects health. These are communities without access to natural gas and now show a tremendous increase in wood use for home heating because of the expense of the alternative heating oil or electricity. Check out the site http://northpolecleanair.wordpress.com to read about their air quality.

Reports from Greece can be heard at the site, http://www.npr.org/2013/01/24/170198112/tax-on-heating-oil-turns-greek-skies-black-with-wood-smoke

Around the world, as more and more places burn wood, there are research opportunities, though tragic, to investigate how wood smoke affects health.

Particle Complexity (PGAQ #438)

Synergy, the University of British Columbia Science Journal, has an article on page 4 of the fall 2012 issue titled “Tiny airborne pollutants lead double life”. In summary, it is about how “UBC and Harvard chemists have provided the first visual evidence that atmospheric particles – which are ubiquitous in the atmosphere above densely populated areas – separate into distinct chemical compositions during their life cycle.”

The article states “Tiny particles, which form part of an airborne chemical mix above cities, play a role in pollution by providing a surface for chemical reactions, and in climate by reflecting and absorbing solar radiation and by acting as seed surfaces for water condensation and cloud formation.

The article ends by stating “Particulate air pollution is a relatively new area of study, but one of growing concern to researchers, health officials and environmental groups. Increases in the concentration of aerosols are correlated with increased health issues, including cardiopulmonary disorders.”

The physics and chemistry of wood smoke particles is extremely complex and it is obvious that wood burners show little respect for the complexity or consequences of their “selfish heat”. Best practices for community health and also for home heat demand that wood burners totally “butt out” in crowded areas.

Woodstoves like Wildfires (PGAQ #434)

The BC Medical Journal of December 2012 has an article by Catherine Elliott et al titled “Health Impacts of Wildfires” which summarizes how the Environmental Health Services of the British Columbia Centre for Disease Control examined the effects of three of the worst wildfire seasons on record in BC.

The article states that There is clear evidence that wildfire smoke causes exacerbations of chronic lung disease, … To date we have demonstrated that, at the community level, dispensations of asthma rescue medications (salbutamol) rise rapidly during wildfire smoke events. Our evidence shows that increases in dispensations are associated with measured concentrations of fine particulate matter (PM2.5) in fire-affected communities but not in communities where high particulate matter arises from traffic and other sources.

If wildfires cause asthma with high enough smoke then why would a wood stove be any different for a neighbor close enough to the same type of smoke? And for a community in a valley during a winter inversion the result is the same, clear evidence of exacerbation to chronic lung disease. Wildfires are considered a hazard of great concern and yet community officials allow the same type of hazard with a neighborhood wood stove. This is a clear example of a double standard. Wood stoves should be banned where there are cleaner sources for home heat. 

WS in Criminal Code (PGAQ #433)

 Section 245 of the Criminal Code of Canada states the following:

245. Administering noxious thing

245. Everyone who administers or causes to be administered to any person or causes any person to take poison or any other destructive or noxious thing is guilty of an indictable offence and liable

(a) to imprisonment for a term not exceeding fourteen years, if he intends thereby to endanger the life of or to cause bodily harm to that person; or

(b) to imprisonment for a term not exceeding two years, if he intends thereby to aggrieve or annoy that person.

R.S., c. C-34, s. 229.

According to many bothered neighbors and also many researchers in environmental epidemiology, wood smoke is destructive, noxious, endangers life, causes bodily harm, aggrieves and annoys. What more is needed to ban wood smoke near others in crowded areas? Of course “the dose makes the poison” but if you can see or smell wood smoke that dose is excessive and should be handled by the above law.

CMHC Calculator (PGAQ # 432)

The Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) presents an 85 page “Guide to Residential Wood Heating” at the site www.cmhc-schl.gc.ca/en/co/maho/enefcosa/upload/wood_heating_EN_W.pdf.

P4 states “If you heat with wood now or are considering the use of wood fuel for home heating, this book is for you.”

This guide is well worth scanning. It explains the complexity of heating with wood and shows how to compare various costs. For example the costs of electricity to natural gas to wood are about 3:2:1 when using a formula on P81 that includes Energy Cost per Unit, Energy Content, Heating Load, and System Efficiency. This formula takes into account many factors including type of fuel, age of house, and location in Canada. I calculated my house in Prince George, BC to have costs of about $3000, $2000, and $1000 per year when comparing electricity, gas and wood.

Now for the main problem. What average person has the time and expertise to burn wood properly? The guide covers topics like advantages, disadvantages, required fitness levels, air pollution, wood storage, modern designs, catalytic versus non-catalytic models, pellet technology, etc. There are so many ever-changing rules to follow on certification, flue-pipes, chimney liners, shield, floor pads, clearances, etc. There are suggestions about avoiding basement locations, avoiding outside chimneys, proper safety, installation, inserts, stove locations, maintenance, etc. The many problems mentioned are back drafts, keeping flue gases hot, efficient loading procedures, appropriate ventilation, chimney sizes, chimney fires, creosote cleaning, smoke spillage, negative pressure, stack effect, cold back draft at standby, etc. Decent burning requires knowledge of wood types, storage techniques, moisture content, the phases of combustion, lighting and rekindling techniques, etc. Wood burners need special permits, inspection, and increased fire insurance.  Who follows page 57 which states “The most important rule is:  NEVER LET THE FIRE SMOLDER.” 

Why would anyone burn wood in crowded areas to smoke out neighbors instead of letting a programmable thermostat keep costs down?

Chemophobia (PGAQ #431)

The following definition is taken from Wikipedia. Chemophobia literally means "fear of chemicals". It is most often used to describe the assumption that "chemicals" (i.e., man-made products or artificially concentrated but naturally occurring chemicals) are bad and harmful, while "natural" things (i.e., chemical compounds that occur naturally or that are obtained using traditional techniques) are good and healthy. General chemophobia derives from incomplete knowledge of science, or a misunderstanding of science, and is a form of technophobia and fear of the unknown.”

Chemophobia is often noticeable in those wood burners who claim that natural gas is dangerous. They claim that wood smoke is natural and thus safe because it occurs naturally as with forest fires. Some wood burners actually go to extremes and say that the open fireplace is safer than an enclosed stove since the particulate is closer to nature.

It also follows that the other man-made processed chemicals like natural gas are harmful. Note how even the National Toxicology Program (NTP) of the USA does not list wood smoke as a carcinogen on its Report on Carcinogens (RoC) possibly because of this widespread fallacy.

There are many examples showing that chemophobia is fallacy and foolishness. Modern chemotherapy has saved many lives from cancer, thus prolonging life. Some chemo drugs may actually cause cancer over time but the short term benefits to survivors are obvious. The benefits of many modern medical drugs are also obvious. Of course balance is important.

Research shows that wood smoke is harmful to health and like the heavy metal lead that there is no safe level of smoke particulate. This is a great example about how natural chemicals are not always safe. Toxic volcano gas and poisonous mushrooms are other great examples that “natural” does not always mean safe. It is wrong to say that wood smoke is safe.

Appeal to Nature (PGAQ #430)

 The following is from Wikipedia.

“Some people use the phrase "naturalistic fallacy" or "appeal to nature" to characterize inferences of the form "This behaviour is natural; therefore, this behaviour is morally acceptable" or "This property is unnatural; therefore, this property is undesirable."

The naturalistic fallacy is the idea that what is found in nature is good. It was the basis for Social Darwinism, the belief that helping the poor and sick would get in the way of evolution, which depends on the survival of the fittest. Today, biologists denounce the Naturalistic Fallacy because they want to describe the natural world honestly, without people deriving morals about how we ought to behave—as in: If birds and beasts engage in adultery, infanticide, cannibalism, it must be OK).

An appeal to nature is a fallacious argument or rhetorical tactic in which a phenomenon is described as desirable merely because it is natural or undesirable merely because it is unnatural. It is part of the naturalistic fallacy: whereas the naturalistic fallacy in general refers to attempts to derive a statement of value from a statement of fact, the appeal to nature refers specifically to where the statement of fact is the alleged occurrence of the phenomenon in nature and the statement of value is the alleged desirability thereof. It depends on a positive view of nature, e.g. good, desirable, etc. as a foundation of the reasoning of the argument. Skeptic Julian Baggini explains that "Even if we can agree that some things are natural and some are not, what follows from this? The answer is: nothing. There is no factual reason to suppose that what is natural is good (or at least better) and what is unnatural is bad (or at least worse)."

Many wood burners use the “Appeal to Nature” as an excuse to continue smoking out neighbors. They say that “wood smoke is natural and therefore morally acceptable.”  Even worse, many politicians support this reasoning and refuse to help out citizens who are exposed to wood smoke.

As explained above, the appeal to nature is wrong and as Baggini says “There is no factual reason to suppose that what is natural (wood smoke) is good and what is unnatural (natural gas) is bad.” Moral philosophy and social responsibility demands that wood burners stop smoking out their neighbors.

Complete Combustion also Bad

By: Vic Steblin Feb 04, 2014 

Chem Biol Interact. 2013 Nov 25;206(2):411-22. doi: 10.1016/j.cbi.2013.05.015. Epub 2013 Jun 21.

Bioavailability and potential carcinogenicity of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons from wood combustion particulate matter in vitro.

Gauggel-Lewandowski SHeussner AHSteinberg PPieterse Bvan der Burg BDietrich DR.


Due to increasing energy demand and limited fossil fuels, renewable energy sources have gained in importance. Particulate matter (PM) in general, but also PM from the combustion of wood is known to exert adverse health effects in human. These are often related to specific toxic compounds adsorbed to the PM surface, such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH), of which some are known human carcinogens. This study focused on the bioavailability of PAHs and on the tumor initiation potential of wood combustion PM, using the PAH CALUX® reporter gene assay and the BALB/c 3T3 cell transformation assay, respectively. For this, both cell assays were exposed to PM and their respective organic extracts from varying degrees of combustion. The PAH CALUX® experiments demonstrated a concentration-response relationship matching the PAHs detected in the samples. Contrary to expectations, PM samples from complete (CC) and incomplete combustion (IC) provided for a stronger and weaker response, respectively, suggesting that PAH were more readily bioavailable in PM from CC. These findings were corroborated via PAH spiking experiments indicating that IC PM contains organic components that strongly adsorb PAH thereby reducing their bioavailability. The results obtained with organic extracts in the cell transformation assay presented the highest potential for carcinogenicity in samples with high PAH contents, albeit PM from CC also demonstrated a carcinogenic potential. In conclusion, the in vitro assays employed emphasize that CC produces PM with low PAH content however with a general higher bioavailability and thus with a nearly similar carcinogenic potential than IC PM. 

So even with complete combustion (CC) the PAHs have about the same carcinogenic potential as with the incomplete combustion (IC).