Wood smoke and your health – what you need to know

Dr Isabel Hess, Senior Policy Analyst, Environmental Health Branch, Health Protection NSW
Peta Pippos, Senior Policy Analyst, Environmental Health Branch, Health Protection NSW

Many people have the idyllic and romantic vision of sitting by a warm glowing wood fire on a cold winter’s night. Further, burning of wood for heating and cooking is the oldest source of energy and has been used by humans for at least 300,000 to 400,000 years.[1, 2] Using a wood fired heater for heating is also often portrayed as a natural and economic way to heat your home.[3]

However, when you wake up in the morning after a cold still winter’s night and you see a brown haze lying like a blanket over your neighbourhood, you might be surprised to learn that this air pollution is mostly due to particle emissions from wood-burning heaters.[4]

What is wood smoke?

A burning fire.Smoke from wood-burning heaters consists of a complex mixture of harmful gases and small particles. The main air pollutants in wood smoke are particulate matter (PM), carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxides and a range of other organic compounds like formaldehyde, benzene and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons.[5] Some of these air pollutants (PM, formaldehyde, benzene) have been classified as carcinogenic to humans. [6,7]

Wood smoke significantly contributes to PM air pollution outside (Figure 1) and also worsens indoor air quality.[5] PM is a term used to describe very small airborne solid or liquid particles.

Why is it bad for my health?

The fine particles or PM from wood smoke can penetrate deep into your lungs and affect your health.

There is good scientific evidence that long-term exposure to PM decreases lung function and increases the risk of developing heart and lung diseases like angina and chronic bronchitis (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease).[8,9] Short-term exposure (over hours or days) to high levels of wood smoke or PM can cause eye and respiratory tract irritation, aggravate asthma or worsen heart disease.[5,8,10]

Wood smoke can affect anyone. However, some people are more likely to be affected including children, people with pre-existing heart or lung conditions and the elderly. If you can smell wood smoke you are being exposed and may be at risk of adverse health effects.

How big is the problem?

In winter, wood smoke can be a significant contributor to air pollution in Sydney as well as in some regional centres in NSW. In July wood heater emissions make up 75% of all PM2.5 (particles with a diameter of 2.5 micrometres or less) particle pollution in Sydney (Figure 1).

Monthly PM10 emissions in the Sydney region
Source: NSW Environment Protection Authority, 2008 Air Emissions Inventory [11]

What can I do to make my fire safer?

The best option is not to use a wood burning heater and use alternate ways to heat your home if you can. If wood heating is all you have available for heating your home, there are some ways to reduce the level of particle pollution emitted.

The following steps will make your wood heater safer for you and your neighbours:

  • check your heater complies with the Australian Standard (AS/NZS 4013:2014)
  • only use aged and dry wood
  • don’t let your fire smoulder overnight.

For more tips on how to best use your wood heater, please visit NSW Environment Protection Authority - What you can do about wood smoke pollution.

What is being done to reduce the impact from wood smoke?

Wood burning domestic heaters and wood smoke are subject to regulation under the Protection of the Environment Operations (POEO) Act 1997. NSW Environment Protection Agency (EPA) is responsible together with local councils to implement these regulations. Some councils prohibit the installation of wood fired heaters in new homes. Health Protection NSW works closely with EPA to support the development and implementation of air pollution reduction measures including minimising wood smoke emissions that will benefit health. For more information on wood smoke control and reduction measures, please visit the NSW Environment Protection Agency.

Conclusion

Wood smoke contains a mixture of harmful gases and small particles. Exposure to wood smoke can lead to a variety of short-term and long-term adverse health effects. It is best not to use a wood fired heater if possible, but if there are no other options to heat your home, there are some simple steps to follow to reduce harmful emissions.

References

  1. Department of Environment, Australian Government (2002). Review of literature on residential firewood use, wood-smoke and air toxics. Technical Report No. 4, Environment Australia, June 2002. ISBN 0 6425 4868 4. Accessed 27 August 2014 http://www.environment.gov.au/archive/atmosphere/airquality/publications/report4
  2. Roebroeks W, Villa P (2011). On the earliest evidence for habitual use of fire in Europe. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 2011. Vol. 108 (13):5209-14. Accessed 27 August 2014: http://www.pnas.org/content/108/13/5209.full
  3. Australian Home Heating Association Inc. (AHHA). Accessed 20 August 2014 http://www.homeheat.com.au/
  4. NSW Environment Protection Agency (2013). Reducing wood smoke emissions. Accessed 22 August 2014 http://www.epa.nsw.gov.au/woodsmoke/index.htm
  5. Boman BC, Forsberg AB, Jarvholm BG (2003). Adverse health effects from ambient air pollution in relation to residential wood combustion in modern society. Scandinavian Journal of Work, Environment and Health, 2003; 29(4):251-60.
  6. Loomis D, Grosse Y, Lauby-Secretan B, et al (2013). The carcinogenicity of outdoor air pollution. Lancet Oncology, 2013; 14(13):1262-3.
  7. IARC Working Group on the Evaluation of Carcinogenic Risks to Humans (2009). A review of human carcinogens. Volume 100 Part F: Chemical agents and related occupations. International Agency for Research on Cancer, Lyon, France. Accessed 28 August 2014 http://monographs.iarc.fr/ENG/Monographs/vol100F/mono100F.pdf
  8. Brook RD, Rajagopalan S, Pope CA, et al. (2010). Particulate matter air pollution and cardiovascular disease: an update to the scientific statement from the American Heart Association. Circulation, 2010; 121:2331-78.
  9. Anderson JO, Thundiyil JG, Stolbach A (2012). Clearing the air: a review of the effects of particulate matter air pollution on human health. Journal of Medical Toxicology, 2012; 8:166-75.
  10. Atkinson RW, Anderson HR, Sunyer J, et al. (2001). Acute effects of particulate air pollution on respiratory admissions: Results from APHEA 2 Project. American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine, 2001; 164:1860-6.
  11. NSW Environment Protection Authority (2012). Air emissions inventory for the Greater Metropolitan Region in New South Wales; 2008 Calendar Year; Technical Report No. 1. NSW Environment Protection Authority, Sydney South, Australia. ISBN 978-1-74293-556-0. Accessed 28 August 2014 http://www.epa.nsw.gov.au/resources/air/120255AEITR1NatHuman.pdf
Page Updated: Tuesday 30 September 2014
Contact page owner: Health Protection NSW