The crackle of a fire, the flicker of the flames and the warming heat from your fire are the picture of winter for many homes. And with energy prices rising, more and more people are using fires and wood burners to heat their homes. How many are aware of the toxic pollution particles being released into the air though? How many know of the damage they are causing to themselves and their neighbours? Looking at the evidence, is it time to put those toxic fires out?
Any form of burning wood in your home releases tiny particles into the air, as George Monbiot recently acknowledged. University of Edinburgh researchers, along with many others have proved that any exposure, even short-term, can have long-term health consequences with those particles staying in our bodies for a long time.
The British Heart Foundation funded the study, which proved that the particles travel in from the lungs into the bloodstream and can stay in the lungs, blood and urine for up to three months after the exposure. The pollution generated by wood burning has been linked to a range of health problems that include asthma attacks, diminished lung function, respiratory ailments, heart attacks, and strokes. The fine particles are linked to respiratory and cardiovascular illness and lung cancer. And there is evidence to show there are more serious effects for children as their respiratory systems are developing.
The worst offenders
The biggest source of this type of air pollution in the UK is domestic coal and wood burning. With open fires, most of the heat is lost up the chimney and this method can potentially be the most polluting, owing to the lower temperatures involved. It is an inefficient way of heating as well as causing pollution. With woodburners, the tiny particles flood into the room when the burner doors are opened for refuelling. These particles pass through the lungs and into the body and particularly affect younger and older people.
Although wood burners do cause less indoor pollution than open fires in the home, both a fire and a wood burner release those particles which are proven to be damaging to health.
Experts at the British Heart Foundation, Asthma UK and British Lung Foundation are asking people with wood burners and fires only to use them if they have no alternative source of heat.
Sarah MacFadyen, head of policy at Asthma UK said:
“We know that burning wood and coal releases fine particulate matter (PM2.5) – the most worrying form of air pollution for human health. It’s therefore important to consider less-polluting fuel options to heat your home or cook with, especially if coal or wood is not your primary fuel source.”
The World Health Organisation estimates that air pollution is responsible for around 50,000 premature deaths in the UK and airborne pollution is the largest environmental risk to public health. Chief Medical Officer, Professor Chris Whitty, has reported that air pollution kills at least 36,000 people a year in the UK, and that we need more research into this.
Many people may be reading this and feel that it is their choice to burn wood or coal in their home – which it is in most places where there are few regulations. The reality is that smoke can affect neighbouring homes as well as your own, causing pollution which affects you and your neighbours.
Some councils, such as Brighton and Hove, are progressing with enforcing smoke control areas. In these areas, any wood burning must be approved, and only smokeless fuels used. Sales of coal and wet wood are already restricted. There are new regulations in place for wood burning stoves as part of the government’s Clean Air Strategy. There does not seem to be a plan to ban them yet, but from 1 January 2022 all wood burning and multi-fuel stoves had to meet ecodesign standards.
Balance that with a report in which Professor Whitty said that these ecodesign stoves produce 450 times more toxic air pollution than gas central heating. Older stoves which are no longer sold produce 3,700 times more, while electric heating produces none. He argues that we urgently need more research to understand the damage and potential solutions.
And wood burning has increased in popularity. Many see this as a lifestyle choice, some think this is a greener way to heat their homes, and for others it’s about saving on energy costs. Around two million families burn wood in their homes, affecting their own and their neighbours’ health.
Sarah Woolnough, Chief Executive of Asthma and Lung UK, said in response to Professor Whitty’s report, “This new report should act as a rallying cry to the government to be bolder in tackling dirty air. Air pollution is a public health emergency.”
We will need to address this debate with care so it does not become polarising, as so many debates have recently. Kate Langford from the charity Impact on Urban Health said:
“People’s awareness of harmful pollution from wood burning is low. Communicating the link between wood burning and health without judgment is an essential step towards behaviour change and regulation.”
With clear evidence that fires are damaging our health, is it time for everyone to consider putting those fires out?