There’s a chill in the air which means many families will now be lighting a fire in their homes or gathering around a firepit outside. But did you know the simple act of burning wood releases a dangerous cocktail of pollutants into your body, your household and around your community?
Action group Mums for Lungs is campaigning to stop wood burning and they spoke with us to explain why it is so dangerous for everyone at all ages, and what we can all do to make a difference. Yes, this is a tough one to hear as we all love a cosy fire! But please read this Q&A and see how you feel about possibly making some adaptations and spreading the word in your neighbourhood.
Why is burning wood so dangerous for the planet and our health?
Even the most ‘eco-friendly’ wood burning stoves emit high levels of particulate matter (PM). PM is one of the most problematic pollutants today and has been associated with a range of conditions, including decreased lung development and function, exacerbation of asthma, allergies, COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder), pulmonary fibrosis and an increased risk of lung cancer. It is also linked with increased morbidity and mortality.
This sounds very alarming. Why isn’t it more widely known?
Unfortunately, wood burning stoves have become a very desirable item to have in our houses – the rise of interior renovation TV shows and the concept of Hygge have contributed hugely to this idea, as have interiors magazines and social media sites like Pinterest and Instagram. Sitting by a fire gives us joy, it makes us feel cosy, it’s a primal thing – and therefore a very hard one for people to accept as a harmful activity.
Would buying a new wood stove or only burning dry wood help?
Wet wood and coal are the biggest problems, which is why new restrictions came into force for those in England in May 2021.
Dry wood is better than wet, but it’s still very harmful to your household and your neighbourhood. Very dry wood actually creates more toxins. As this research review notes: “Combustion may also be too intense when using very dry fuel in well-insulated stoves, thus resulting in so-called ‘air-starved’ conditions. Such combustion may contain the highest emissions of carcinogenic polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and is dominated by solid agglomerated soot (black carbon) particles, which shows similarities to diesel soot.”
As for buying a new wood stove, new research from the European Environmental Bureau shows that even the newest Ecodesign stoves (which are the only ones allowed to be manufactured in the UK and EU from 2022) are allowed to emit 60 times as much particulate matter as an old truck from 2006 and 750 times as much as a newer truck from 2014 per GJ. And that’s in optimal laboratory conditions – which are not replicable in our houses. In short, any kind of wood stove is more polluting than just using a gas boiler.
What would you say to someone who maintains that fires are natural and wood is a sustainable fuel source?
We would say that we know that humans have gathered around fires for many years – but since we haven’t needed to do that for warmth and food, life expectancy has increased! We would also show them the evidence that wood burning contributes to carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. Living trees absorb CO2 from the air and store the carbon within. When wood is burned, the CO2 that was absorbed over the years that the tree was alive is released back into the atmosphere all at once, along with short-lived pollutants such as black carbon. Trees can be replanted, but it takes decades for those new trees to reabsorb the carbon that was emitted when their predecessors were burned. We need to reduce our emissions now; we can’t waste any more time.
I’ve mentioned this to people and often get a weary reaction. It’s like, nooo don’t take away another thing I love! And this one is ancient, soothing and doesn’t rely on fossil fuels. What would you say to this “we can’t have anything anymore!” or “you are being extreme” reaction?
We know it’s really hard to accept – but in these days of the climate crisis and the need to reduce emissions, plus the fact that air pollution has become the world’s single biggest environmental health risk, we just think it is too high a price to pay, to burn wood if you have an alternative heat source.
Even people I know who would consider themselves eco-aware, nature lovers, and making some changes to live more sustainably scoff at the idea they should stop using woodburners, fireplaces or firepits. Do you find this is the case as well?
Yes, all the time! It’s an extremely hard issue to campaign on, people really do not want to hear about the dangers, or be asked not to burn. This is why we want the government to commit to a huge public health campaign on wood burning, and put health warnings on all stoves being sold. We think that if people were fully informed of the dangers, they would be more inclined to accept the inevitable reductions in burning that need to occur.
What should people do if their neighbours are burning wood and they are concerned about it affecting their health and their family’s health? How can you communicate effectively without making your neighbours irate?
We’ve found it is hard to talk to neighbours about this – which is partly why we created our wood burning flyer which you can order from us for free. People tell us they would much rather post a flyer through their neighbour’s letterbox than talk face-to-face about it. If you do want to have a conversation, it’s best to start positively and politely with just a couple of facts, and hand over a flyer. People do not want to be told not to do something, and it often takes about 5 or 6 engagements on a topic before people are willing to take action or hear a message.
If polite communication with neighbours doesn’t work – what other routes can people take? Does complaining to your local council do any good?
It is possible to complain to councils about wood burning, but the law is such at the moment that they have very little powers to get people to stop burning. As our recent research showed, only 19 fines have been issued over this in the last 5 years across England, despite 18000 complaints to councils. So it is very hard currently to get action on this.
If someone wanted to help spread the word about this issue – what could they do?
They should write to their local councillors, cabinet members for Envrironment/Health, leader of their Council and their MP. They can also write in to TV shows and magazines to complain about wood burning being glamorised, and start a conversation with editors about publishing alternative articles that show the other side to this issue. We have template letters on our website to help with both of these. We also have flyers that can be used to give out in your local neighbourhood.
Three things you can do this week!
If you are someone who uses a wood burning stove or open fire, can you consider whether you really need to burn? Do you have an alternative? Please consider not burning at all.
Please talk to people about this! Just a quick conversation with a friend could lead to them changing their habits, or talking to someone else about it and spreading the message further.
Write to your council and to magazines/TV shows as we mentioned above – and join us! We’re happy to send you flyers to spread the message in your area, or you could come to our next wood burning Zoom meeting (in December – date TBC, keep an eye on our social media channels.)
If you’d like to get involved with Mums for Lungs to find out how you can help their efforts to reduce air pollution click here.
Featured image is from the Spare the Air campaign, in the Bay Area of California. There are campaigns all over the world working to reduce air pollution caused by burning wood, and other items, at home.
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