Romantically synonymous with warmth, nature and nocturnal bliss, the wood-burning fire has stoked human evolution for eons. But a series of air-quality studies spanning from Washington State to Vancouver Island are sounding a serious alarm.

When Clive Powsey moved from the outskirts of Toronto, Ontario, to Cumberland, British Columbia, he thought he was leaving his exercise-induced asthma behind for a “clean-air paradise.” On first whiff, it made sense. The small town sits between rainforest-covered mountains and the open waters of the Strait of Georgia. But by the first winter in his new home, Powsey was hacking worse than he ever had out east.

In the spring his lungs cleared up, but every fall the congestion returned. Thinking the wood stove in his studio was the culprit, he stopped using it. His asthma got worse. He started getting pneumonia. Then one fall he went to Vancouver for a week and his lungs cleared up. “I thought, ‘Oh my god. The air quality in Vancouver is better than Cumberland,’” he says. Powsey started looking for proof, and what he found is shocking. The air-clogging culprit is not some industrial polluter, in fact there aren’t any. Rather, it’s Powsey’s neighbours doing something that’s entwined in the island lifestyle and our DNA: burning firewood.

It’s not news that wood smoke is bad for human health. Health Canada says in towns where wood heating is common, chimney smoke contributes as much as 25 percent of airborne particulate matter, eight per cent of volatile organic compounds, seven per cent of carbon monoxide and is a significant contributor to smog. It contains dozens of toxic chemicals. The associated health impacts include lung disease, asthma attacks, acute bronchitis and respiratory infections. One fireplace burning 10 pounds of wood generates nearly as many carcinogenic chemicals as 3,000 packs of cigarettes, according to one US Environmental Protection Agency study.

The research is compelling, but proving pollution came from wood stoves is hard to do. And convincing neighbours is even harder. Just sit next to a fire and try not to stare. Fire places are awesome.

These days, the value of fire extends to tradition, romance and cozy images. And in a place like Cumberland, surrounded by working forests where loggers leave waste that a chainsaw can turn into free energy, wood heat seems greener and more economical.

Several studies suggest humans have an instinctual fascination with flames dating back at least 200,000 years. A researcher at University of California, Los Anegeles found the interest is genetically tied to the need to learn to control flames, a valuable skill during most of our evolution. Sitting around a fire also lowers our blood pressure, according to a University of Alabama study, a sign that fire represented safety. “Collecting kindling, keeping the fire going, cooking: all these things required cooperation, at least when conditions were poor,” says Christopher Lynn, the main researcher. “Those groups more successful at keeping the fire going would have had an advantage over groups that didn’t.”

These days, fire’s value extends to tradition, romance and cozy images. And in a place like Cumberland, surrounded by working forests where loggers leave waste that a chainsaw can turn into free energy, wood heat seems greener and more economical. That might be true for residents that cut, split and season their own firewood. But crunch the local prices into an online calculator and you’ll find natural gas furnaces and electric heat pumps ring in cheaper than buying and burning wood. Both produce at least 99 percent less air pollution. Still, wood heat is nice. “I get it,” says Powsey. “I love the smell of wood smoke.”

“Calling the Comox Valley a fresh-air paradise couldn’t be further from the truth.” – Clive Powsey

But the smell clouding Cumberland on cool days is a sign that the air is full of micron-sized particles known in air pollution lingo as PM 2.5. With each breath—even inside his home where 50 to 70 per cent of particles slip through air filters—the tiny filaments were finding their way deep into Powsey’s lungs and making him sick.

Measurements taken 10 kilometres (six miles) away at Courtenay Elementary School since 2011 showed spring and summer air quality is good. However, come October and especially when there’s cold air trapped in the valley, the air quality failed to meet the federal standard both annually and on a regular basis. For instance, 21 of 76 days between November 2015 and January 2016 readings exceeded federal standards. Courtenay, British Columbia ranks in the top five worst communities in the province for air quality according to the BC Lung Association. When faced with the research, some residents argued there’s no proof wood heat was responsible. So Breathe Clean Air Comox Valley, a citizens group, analyzed daily data and noticed a spike in particulate matter every afternoon and evening, just when residents fired up the wood stove. The most conclusive evidence comes from a University of Victoria study. In 2008 and 2009, researchers drove around the Comox Valley communities measuring air quality. They found the highest PM 2.5 readings within the oldest neighbourhoods of each town, including Cumberland—the exact places that burned the most wood and had the least efficient stoves.

“Calling the Comox Valley a fresh-air paradise couldn’t be further from the truth,” says Powsey. “But mostly this is a health issue. The most at risk are the infants and children, and this is a village of young people. Knowing what I know now, I wouldn’t raise a family here.”

But Powsey does have hope. A growing list of residents are joining the Breathe Clean group to lobby the valley’s various governments to adopt stricter wood-burning regulations, including eliminating backyard burning, educating residents on best burning practices and requiring more efficient wood stoves. The effort is modelled after similar by-laws already in place in Washington State and nearby Duncan and Port Alberni. Plus, many regional districts and towns have stove exchange programs.  “Most people don’t even realize this is an issue,” says Powsey. “As soon as they do they want to do something about it. I think change is coming.”