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‘Like having a truck idling in your living room’: the toxic cost of wood-fired heaters

by Peter Irga, Chancellor's Postdoctoral Research Fellow and Lecturer in Air and Noise Pollution, School of Civil and Environmental Engineering, University of Technology Sydney

Brian Oliver Research Leader in Respiratory cellular and molecular biology at the Woolcock Institute of Medical Research and Professor, Faculty of Science, University of Technology Sydney

and Fraser R TorpyDirector, Plants and Environmental Quality Research Group, University of Technology Sydney Australians are accustomed to having fresh air, and our clean atmosphere is a source of pride for many.

Last summer’s bushfires, however, brought air quality to the public’s attention, as millions of Australians breathed some of the world’s worst quality air.

But there’s a lesser-known source of pollution causing billions of dollars worth of health costs every year: indoor wood-fired heaters.

This week, the Victorian branch of the Australian Medical Association endorsed calls to remove these heaters via a buyback or subsidy scheme. But will it work?

Read more: How does poor air quality from bushfire smoke affect our health?

Wood heater smoke is a huge pollution source

In winter, wood heater smoke is the single biggest air pollutant in New South Wales and the ACT. Similarly, in Victoria, wood smoke on cool winter days is responsible for most breaches of air quality standards.

Wood heater smoke is generated from both open fireplaces and wood-fired heaters. Wood-fired heaters are controlled-combustion, domestic heating appliances. In order to discharge emissions, they use a metal pipe called a flue, while open fireplaces use chimneys.

Around 10% of Australian households – roughly 900,000 homes – use wood as their main source of heating, according to the ABS.

Read more: Bushfire smoke is everywhere in our cities. Here's exactly what you are inhaling

Based on NSW guidelines, burning 10 kilograms of wood (an average day) in a modern, low-emitting wood heater can produce around 15 grams of “particulate matter”.

This is composed of tiny particles which can penetrate into the respiratory system, potentially causing lung and heart diseases. It is one of the most dangerous components of smoke, and a carrier for many of its cancer-causing chemicals.

By contrast, a truck travelling on congested urban roads can produce just 0.03 grams of particulate matter per kilometre travelled. A truck would therefore have to travel 500km in heavy traffic – roughly the distance from Melbourne to Mildura – to produce the same particulate matter emissions as one average day of using a wood heater.

So a wood-fired heater is like having a truck idling in your living room all day (albeit with the bulk of the emissions escaping via the chimney).

Bushfire smoke dominated the headlines during Australia’s bushfire crisis, causing untold health problems. But there’s another source of smoke which has been silently damaging our health for a long time: indoor wood fire heaters.

Smoke is toxic

The smoke from wood fires is very similar to that generated by bushfires, and is also detrimental to our health.

Australia’s wood-fired heaters are estimated to cause health costs of around A$3,800 per wood heater each year.

Given the roughly 900,000 wood heaters used as primary household heating sources in Australia, this could be as high as A$3.4 billion annually across the country.

One study published in May estimated 69 deaths, 86 hospital admissions, and 15 asthma emergency department visits in Tasmania were attributable to biomass smoke each year – the smoke which comes from burning wood, crops and manure. More than 74% of these impacts were attributed to wood heater smoke, with average associated yearly costs of A$293 million.

Another study modelled the effects of air pollution on over-45-year-olds in Sydney over seven years. It found chronic exposure to low levels of particulate matter was linked with an increased risk of death. Depending on the model used, it found between a 3-16% increased risk of dying occurred with each extra microgram (one millionth of a gram) of particulate matter per cubic metre of air.

Read more: From face masks to air purifiers: what actually works to protect us from bushfire smoke?

All of this assumes wood heater users follow the law and use clean, dry hardwood as fuel. Problems become far worse when treated wood is used as the fuel source.

Treated timber offcuts from construction or demolition activities are freely available and therefore continue to be used as fuel for wood heaters, against recommendations.

Much of this timber is treated with an antifungal chemical called copper chrome arsenate. Breathing the emissions when this wood is burned can increase incidents of liver, bladder, and lung cancers, and reduce the production of red and white blood cells, leading to fatigue, abnormal heart rhythm, and blood-vessel damage.

There is no safe level of indoor or outdoor air pollution. This is an ideal time to consider the hidden dangers associated with our “clean” air.