For centuries, humans have been drawn to fire, but as winter starts in earnest, cosying up with ‘logs on the fire and gifts on the tree’ could be dangerous to our health. The dangers of indoor air pollution and especially that from wood-burning stoves are becoming more apparent, with evidence citing that wood burners triple the level of particle pollution inside UK homes.
For people in the UK who are daily bombarded with government messaging on Covid-19, as well as the pressures of working and family life, cosying up in front of the fire is the first thing we want to do. However, this comfortable attitude comes with risks. It’s not too far removed from the tactics of the tobacco industry – ‘Just one more cigarette’.
Dangers of indoor air pollution
The World Health Organization (WHO) has declared that “Air pollution is one of the greatest environmental risks to health”. According to a study published in 2018, air pollution could potentially affect every cell in the body, causing tissue damage, cardiac and respiratory symptoms, as well as more subtle long-term damage to the lungs. In a world where the impact of long covid is still being assessed, we ought to avoid any additional toxins.
Trends in the UK
Over the last 50 years though, there has been a significant decline in the amount of PM2.5 and PM10 emitted particles in the UK. As evidenced by government figures (see below), annual emissions have trended downwards from approximately 700,000 tonnes in 1970, to approximately 180,000 tonnes at present. Comparisons can be misleading because while figures have dropped, we have appeared to stall around the 180,000 tonnes mark and have not continued to make significant progress.
The statistic that has gained the most headlines, is the one below, highlighting that domestic combustion has actually increased in the last 30 years, from around 40,000 tonnes annually to 48,000 tonnes annually. The suggestion being that while our attention has been on reducing PM2.5 and PM10 pollution from road transport and industry, consumers have been quietly bringing the pollution into their own homes instead, viewing a wood burner as a status symbol of lifestyle rather than a necessity.
As the ‘Clean Air Strategy 2019’ states:
“Burning wood and coal in open fires and stoves makes up 38% of the UK’s primary emissions of fine particulate matter.”
Who uses wood burners: the latest ‘hygge’ must have?
A Kantar Report on ‘Burning in UK Homes and Gardens’ for the Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs in December 2020 indicated that “almost half of all indoor burners (46%) were from the highest AB social grades” and that only 8 percent of owners used wood burners out of necessity (that burning was the main source of domestic heating).
Although there were some overlaps in the social groupings, it was observed that almost a third of respondents (28 percent) had a wood burner for the ‘aesthetic’ in terms of creating a homely atmosphere. Almost a quarter of respondents used wood burners out of a desire to save money and for a sense of self-sufficiency, while almost the same number again used wood burners for supplementary heating.
Campaigning for change
Dr Gary Fuller of Imperial College, author of ‘The Invisible Killer: The Rising Global Threat of Air Pollution’, when discussing the environment bill, commented:
“We have to be careful that setting limits does not lead to pollution being moved from dirty area to clean areas ones. Health evidence says that there is no safe threshold for air pollution. Therefore, every action that we take will help.
“Even though just 8% of UK homes burn wood or coal, this produces more particle pollution than all of the traffic on our roads.
“Defra surveys reveal that most people have positive associations with their fireplace or stove and do not think of home burning as an air pollution source. For too long we have only talked about air pollution from traffic and people forget about other sources, such as home fires.”
Jemima Hartshorn, of the grassroots network ‘Mums for Lungs’ – a parent-led group pushing for a public health campaign on the damage to children of air pollution – recently told me:
“Most people are not aware that the emissions from wood burning even in the most modern stoves, emit huge numbers of particles that enter our bodies through our lungs and are causing ill health such as asthma, heart issues and can even enter brain or placenta. We urge [the] government to phase out wood burning unless needed in homes within a decade and ensure that wood burners are only sold with health warnings in the meanwhile.”
Complaints about wood smoke
Over 200 freedom of information requests were sent to local councillors by ‘Mums for Lungs’, revealing that although complaints about wood smoke from indoor wood-burning stoves in Yorkshire are high, especially in smoke control areas, the penalties for being in breach of the Environmental Protection Act 1990 are minimal. Out of over 18,000 complaints nationwide, only 19 fines were issued.
It was disappointing that the UK environment bill did not include the tighter WHO guidelines on outdoor air quality that were published in September 2021, reducing the PM2.5 average from 10 µg/m³ to 5 µg/m³, but instead only formalised that a target must be set.
Environmental targets: particulate matter
(1) The Secretary of State must set a target (“the PM2.5 air quality target”) in respect of the annual mean level of PM2.5 in ambient air.
(2) The PM2.5 air quality target may, but need not, be a long-term target.’
It may be though, that the lack of a specific target could be interpreted as a positive step forwards, especially in the light of studies that suggest that there is no safe limit. Indeed, as is often the case with limits, there can be a perception that anything up to that limit is ‘safe’, as we have also seen with global temperature rise targets.
Confusion over new rules
In May 2021, restrictions began on bagged coal and ‘wet wood’, in order to move people to ‘dry wood’ – wood that has a moisture content of under 20 percent. ‘Ready to burn’ logs can now be seen on products, in order to help customers identify so-called ‘safer’ fuel (fuel that emits five times fewer pollutants).
From 1 January 2022, all wood-burning stoves sold in the UK must meet ‘Ecodesign’ standards by law, although already some of the regulation has come under criticism for not being strong enough, as they still allow for particle emissions to be greater than 750 times than that of a modern HGV truck.
Notice the polluting evidence
As we use our fires this wintertime, we should consider the impact of the pollutants flooding our rooms with particulate matter, sending these carcinogenic chemicals deep into our lungs.
Instead of socks, perhaps the best ‘gifts on the tree’ this Christmas, might be indoor air quality monitors, rather than the annual socks, to warn people about the danger lurking invisibly in their home.