Court finds Wood Smoke
Hazardous to Health
UPdate Fall 2008
Wood smoke from a neighbor’s stove can be more than just an annoyance.
It can be a threat to health and to enjoyment of property. In February 2008,
the Supreme Court of Ontario found that Brenda and David Deumo of Hamilton,
Ontario had suffered harm “severe enough to deprive [them] of the ability
to stay outdoors in their yard, or to go to the house and leave the windows
open. It even caused them some disturbance when the windows were closed. It
was a severe interference with the use and enjoyment of the property.”
The judge ordered $270,000 in damages and legal costs. He also continued an
injunction forbidding their neighbors, the Fitzpatricks, from using a wood
burning stove in their garage.
From 1999 to 2003, the Deumos had asked the Fitzpatricks to stop using the
wood stove in their garage, as the thick smoke was making it almost impossible
to spend time outside. The fire department was called several times, and the
town even asked Fitzpatrick to restrict his burning to winter months. Nothing
stopped the burning, which continued winter and summer, until the Deumos went
to court in 2003. They then received a temporary injunction forbidding the
Fitzpatricks from using the wood stove.
The Deumo case may be the first to provide legal compensation for damages from
wood smoke. Justice Ramsey found that “the smoke caused Mrs. Deumo some
pain and suffering by aggravating her existing sensitivities.” He also
found that Mr. Deumo, who is normally not sensitive to irritants such as smoke,
also suffered physically. “The acts of the defendant were reckless, destructive,
persistent, pervasive and heedless of their heighbours’ physical integrity
and property rights,” Ramsey wrote.
Describing photos taken of the smoke in 1999 and 2002, the judge said: "To
me, it looks like London fog. The photograph of the defendant's chimney resembles
nothing so much as the stack of a 19th-century coal-fired train engine."
Lou Frapporti, lawyer for the Deumos told the Hamilton Spectator, "I'm
immensely relieved for my clients, who had their story heard and their position
vindicated. That no government agency would step in is shameful."
The Deumo case may be the first successful legal challenge to wood smoke pollution,
but its unlikely to be the last. The Brandie family of Amherstburg, Ontario
sought and received a temporary injunction in 2005 restraining a neighboring
family from “burning any wood, waste or other matter leading to the release
of smoke from the defendant’s residence.”
Wood smoke is not just a hazard in extreme cases such as the Deomos. “There’s
no question it has a health impact,” says McMaster University chemist
Brian McCarry. McCarry warns that the toxic content of smoke from fireplaces
and old-fashioned wood stoves is similar to that of diesel exhaust and tobacco
The chemical composition of wood smoke, especially from low-temperature fires,
is really nasty," notes McCarry. “…[W]ood smoke is as big
a danger as any other combustion source. Because it is considered natural,
it is considered benign, but it's really a very dirty energy source. “
As oil prices rise, and people turn to wood as an economical heat source, the
problems of wood smoke pollution in both urban and rural communities is increasing.
For every increase in the level of particle air pollution, there is a measurable
increase in chronic respiratory illness, according to Dr. Joel Schwartz, Harvard
School of Public Health.
The largest single source of outdoor fine particles (PM2.5) entering into our
homes in many American cities is our neighbor’s fireplace or wood stove,” according
to Stanford University professor Dr. Wayne Ott. Fine particles are considered
the most hazardous type of air pollutants, because they are inhaled deeply
where they can cause more damage. “Only a few hours of wood burning in
a single home at night can raise fine particle concentrations in dozens of
surrounding homes throughout the neighborhood and cause PAH concentrations
higher than 2,000ng/m3,” notes Ott, an expert in outdoor pollution.
UPdate, Fall 2008, Environmental Health Association of Nova Scotia