Harmful levels of cancer-causing arsenic have been detected in the air around Victory from the types of wood being burned in domestic woodburners, Nelson environment and transport strategy group Nelsust says.
The group wants further action on air quality in the area, and is urging the Nelson City Council to “get its act together” after an independent scientific report found arsenic levels in the Victory area were double health guidelines.
The December 2013 report on the source and distribution of particulate matter and concentrations was prepared by the Institute of Geological and Nuclear Sciences Limited (GNS Science) for the council.
Nelsust spokesman Peter Olorenshaw said the group was recently made aware of the publicly available report and used it as background at one of its recent meetings, which focused on the latest air quality monitoring in Victory.
Nelsust wants the council to adopt a suggestion from the report that it better enforce air quality regulations or set in place more extensive public education around woodburners and the types of fuel that should be used in them.
The GNS report said that arsenic contamination was considered to be from the use of copper chrome arsenate (CCA), or treated timber being burned in domestic fires.
Rules in the Nelson Air Quality Plan prohibited the discharge of contaminants to air from the burning of CCA-treated timber.
Olorenshaw said burning arsenic-treated timber released arsenic, which is a known carcinogen, into the air.
Data gathered by GNS suggested that “sufficient quantities” were being burned to have an acute localised effect, but repeated exposure during winters may also include a chronic exposure that was close to, or exceeded, ambient air quality guidelines at urban locations in New Zealand.
Nelsust’s analysis of the report was that arsenic levels in the air in the Victory airshed measured in 2009, 2010 and 2011 were double New Zealand air quality guidelines and up to 16 times the guidelines on the worst winter days.
City councillor and Victory resident Matt Lawrey said it was a “real worry” but many people in Nelson could not afford to buy seasoned dry wood from professional suppliers, so they burned whatever wood they could get.
“My personal view is that we need to look at where this treated timber is coming from and talk to the building industry about how we can get more of it going into landfill and less of it going into logburners,” Lawrey said.
Richmond Wood and Coal owner Ashley Kelly was aware that in Victory some people were burning anything they got for free and then cut up, such as wooden storage pallets.
A lot were not tanalised [treated], but it was not known what had been stored on them.
“They could have had drums of arsenic stored on them,” Kelly said.
He said professionally supplied firewood came straight from pine forests and was stored and dried for at least a year before it was sold.
A firewood lot of 3.6 cubic metres cost about $135 and an average household might burn three lots winter, but there were many variables, such as how a home was insulated and whether occupants were home all day.
GNS said an emissions inventory was developed in 2006 by the council, but the accuracy of the inventory around source emissions and types was unclear. It was “critical” for NCC to effectively manage air quality in Nelson Airshed A [Victory and hospital area].
Nelsust wants the council to conduct further education on the use of logburners and for enforcement officers to do a better job in stopping the use of treated timber as fuel by checking woodpiles in the area.
It also suggested introducing fines for those who refused to comply.
Olorenshaw said the council should also be allowing new installations of the least polluting logburners.
Lawrey said another problem was many people in the Victory area were living in poorly insulated properties, which increased their dependence on logburners.
While he saw the appeal of what Nelsust was asking for, suspected enforcement could lead to “a hell of a lot of unhelpful aggravation”.
NCC TARGETS HOME HEATING
The city council is carrying out scientific monitoring in all airsheds across the whole of Nelson this winter as part of the review of its air quality plan, says planning and regulatory committee chairman Brian McGurk. This will help inform the present levels and sources of arsenic in the air.
McGurk said the council’s eco building design adviser, Richard Popenhagen, had visited more than 80 homes so far this winter, including many in the Victory area, and had provided practical advice to residents on how to keep their homes warm, dry and healthy, plus advice on the efficient use and correct fuel for heating appliances.
“People should not hesitate to report any breaches or make complaints. The council’s enforcement will be continuing, and they do follow up on all reported complaints and detected breaches,” McGurk said.
He said further advice about only burning untreated timber was to be included in workshops to be run periodically by Popenhagen and the council’s environmental programmes officer.
The workshops were aimed at including new migrants who had not previously used wood burners.
“These are usually held in the Victory Community Centre and this will help us get the message to those people with little or no English,” McGurk said.
Nelson city Mayor Rachel Reese said it was important that monitoring was continued.
Nelson could follow some examples set by Environment Canterbury with its use of social media and direct contact with the community to gets its message across.
She said in many cases, people who had never before used a wood burner did not know you could not burn treated timber.
“Some basic how-to messages need to be delivered, but we also need to think about who the audience is and communicate in a way that can be understood.”
Reese was aware that sending out brochures to residents’ letterboxes or placing technical information on a website was not always the best way.
“Essentially, people need to be mindful that cheap or free wood is not always good wood.”