Today you would have to drive a diesel truck 500 kilometres to emit as much air pollution as a wood heater does in a single day. And that figure is for a wood heater that meets the current regulatory standards in Australia. Most do not.
On the solutions:
Buy-back schemes, home efficiency subsidies, regulation and enforcement, including property market regulation (ensuring wood heaters are removed prior to sale), and restrictions on new installations all have a role to play.
We are conducting economic modelling to determine the most cost-effective policy settings for maximising the benefits of policies to manage the problem of wood heaters.
There is much more to this problem than economics and public health. Whatever they come up with it will not be accepted universally. Factors like poverty, tradition, ignorance and conservatism may all predispose one against this change. In regions outside cities those factors can overlay quite a bit, in some households all four apply.
If nothing else the more one is surrounded by agriculture and rural life, the more one is exposed to more than just smoke from the home wood stove or heater.
Our local council charges the community to dispose of their trailer loads of green waste at the recycling centre. The council piles up periodically bringing in a tub grinder and grab excavator to chip it all for mulch. No surprise those on rural residential lots find it more convenient to hold regular bonfires.
For any regulation to be taken seriously and to be effective, at least in my backyard, it will need more than a token effort to restrict household wood burning.
It might need much more than cash to change the thinking, given the preferences of the demographic.
Pasture burning is a time honoured quick fix for weed infestation that envelopes some districts in smoke every year in late winter or early spring. The same people who will bend your ear about the terrible smoke from a bushfire will shrug about deliberately lit grass fires. I reckon at least three of the four factors I mentioned are relevant.
We all breathe the same air regardless of the reason it may be polluted.
The same goes for backburning to keep communities safe. As a fire brigade member I know that it causes concern with some but it needs to be done on a regular basis to keep the bush ‘fuel load’ low and managable. Landholders of rural blocks apply the same strategy to keep themselves and their neighbours safe from major disaster
Lots of thoughtful contributions here.
We have wood heating in a well-insulated suburban house and are not thinking of changing - although I sense social pressure will increase to change to electricity, ostensibly for health reasons.*
I’m in my mid-70s and still enjoy scavenging, sawing, splitting, stacking and drying firewood. We have about two years supply under cover with half of that drying out for winter 2024. I gather all our wood for free.
I am surprised that no one has mentioned the security of being self-sufficient for heating in the event of a power outage. Most extreme weather events occur in the warmer months, but this is not guaranteed.
What plans do you have for keeping warm if your electricity is out for a week or two in winter?
[* I say “ostensibly” because shifting to electricity is another example of governments extending their control - and reducing the independence of families and citizens - in a lot of areas. I find this uncomfortable.]
I must say I get most of my wood from scavenging too. A friend did some restumping, so took the old stumps off him for free, and some circular saw work gave me years of quality hardwood for heating in the Coonara.
Often see wood on the nature strips left out for the taking. It’s in my boot after a quick stop. Same with wood pallets often seen just lying around at the back of shops just begging to be taken to a good reuse.
A while ago now we in Victoria had to turn off the gas after an explosion at the Longford gas processing plant. That knocked out my central heating. But the wood heater kept me warm as a backup.
Hi, the house I moved to 4 years ago was pretty cold during winter. We get below zero fairly regularly from May - Sept Oct. Frost when not raining. The house has a fire box and a split system in lounge only. U shaped house so not all areas warm equally. Last year I finalised the ceiling insulation so most of the ceiling has R4.1 rating. This made an immediate difference of around 5 degrees C. The rear is unknown but appears to be around R2.5 and this shows in room temps below. Anyway, as there are solar panels on roof, I use the split system when sun is shining in afternoons, making it warm for the evening, figuring this is cheapest way out, otherwise the power generated goes to the grid with a $ return that is nothing short of an insult. I buy wood and use the firebox in the coldest of nights which does warm the house better, over all. To be honest, I am starting to think that with wood resources becoming less sustainable and more expensive, we who live in cold climates should seriously consider techniques of coppicing trees in back yards to create our own fiire wood. It is an old technique used in UK and works best for certain species which grow fast and are best suited for burning (less tanins ?).
I agree with your comment about control, although not so much Governments as multinational energy companies. To me fire used to be a basic human right for cooking and heating, despite other views of ignorance and old habits. (In fact I didn’t live with electricity until I was around 8 years old and instincitvely taught my kids how to build a fire and cook with a fire responsibly for survival purposes, from a young age) I suspect many of us, myself included would use more clean heating if we live in larger cities (which I do not) and if we didn’t feel so squeezed and manipulated by the energy companies.
I agree that access to cooking and heating is basic and something everybody ought to have but I don’t see why that cannot be updated to work with more modern methods of doing so that have a much lower risk to health of those enjoying those things and their neighbours who breath in the smoke whether they benefit or not.
The health consequences of breathing air pollution are real and significant. Burning wood (or other fuel) is a major cause of air pollution around the world.
It is one thing to be concerned about government over reach it is another to think that major public health and climate change issues can be dealt with other than through government action internationally.
If I had a fuel stove I would probably burn wood during power outages during winter but I don’t see that as a reason to burn wood frequently when other methods of heating are available.
I have spent weeks in the past doing most of my cooking on a wood stove. It is kind of fun for a while but a real PITA in the long run as you have to arrange what you cook and when you cook around controlling the fire box and the very slow response to actions that initiate temperature change. Not to mention the lack of attraction or splitting wood and cleaning out the ash tray.
As for doing it commercially - it can be done. I knew a woman who was a genius at running the huge fuel stove at the local pub (which had several fire boxes). She could keep several ovens and many pots going and bark orders at her offsiders at the same time while providing dozens of meals three times a day. The food was very basic and I doubt there is anybody left who could do it. It is a skill of a bygone age.
On a routine flue cleaning of our old wood heater just after we moved into this house, it emerged that our wood fire was missing a baffle plate, that there had been a fire in the flue and that it was their opinion that the heater was unsafe. After a lot of research we purchased a new wood heater. I was dissatisfied with it for a number of reasons, amongst which were the noise the fan made, and the amount of grey dust that was evident on tables, kitchen bench top etc. I did more research to discover that wood heaters that comply with relevant Australian standards still belch out considerable amounts of pollutants. Wood was getting more and more expensive, we were worried about out contribution to greenhouse gases, etc., and I was very concerned about the quality of air within our house and so switched to a reverse cycle air conditioner. With lots of rooftop solar, it seems to be a lot cheaper…but more significantly, there is no soot being blown around the house.
Welcome to the community @Pierre. A good find, and a question as to why the baffle plate was not replaced. Without putting a case for wood or electricity, it looks like poor advice by the person doing the clean. That your new wood heater created a layer of grey dust suggests there was a further issue with the quality of the install or its operation.
Noted your switch to Electricity which is cleaner for the home and less demanding to operate. Were you able to compare the relative costs of the two - running cost per month (wood vs electricity) and capital cost (new wood heater vs RC Air con)?
I’ve used a wood heater in the suburbs for decades. At first it was all I had but later it was supplemented by r/c air cons.
For most of that time the electricity was produced by burning dirty brown coal which had documented health effects in the area surrounding the power station.
So in the Choice article we hear that woodsmoke is bad for the lungs too. I expect that’s true for asthmatics and folk with compromised lungs in other ways but for the rest of us there’s Toxicology 101: the dose makes the poison.
There’s an Australian air quality standard for very small particles (PM2.5): no more than 25 micrograms per cubic metre averaged over 24 hours. The expert quoted in the article made no mention of dosage.
It may be that the standard is too high. That’s both an empirical matter and one of judgement. There are risks everywhere - how much are we prepared to tolerate?
Woodsmoke contains a range of pollutants that are harmful to human health, such as particulates, nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide, volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). Some pollutants from wood heater smoke, such as particulates and formaldehyde, are carcinogenic. Chronic exposure to woodsmoke can also cause heart and lung disease. Pregnant women, children, older people, and people with respiratory illness are especially vulnerable to the health impacts of woodsmoke.”
I don’t think it is sensible to ask Choice to publish epidemiological studies to justify taking a given policy direction. Even links to same would be ignored by most.
I see grahroll has responded with a lot of references that will get you started on the science and save me some trouble. I have others if that is insufficient.
As a general observation the fact that air pollution is a major cause of morbidity and mortality world wide and the fact that smoke from wood fires is a significant contributor to that pollution (and not just in third world countries where there is much less choice) has been known for years.
My guess is that along with similar health effects from gas stoves this problem is getting a run in the media now as these activities produce greenhouse gasses as well as PMs and toxic gasses and because technology has provided good cleaner alternatives that were not there a generation ago.
Oh, and I haven’t seen Choice or anybody here advocating banning wood heating. It is a complex problem. I addressed some of it here.
See the terms used here: ‘may’, ‘can’, ‘risk’, ‘potential’ etc.
To return to Toxicology 101: the dose makes the poison.
You probably add poison to your food every day - plain old salt - but it’s not toxic because the dose is below the harm threshold.
Under current air quality standards, PM2.5 (or very small particles) aren’t a health risk for a healthy person until you reach the specified level of exposure.
There’s been a panic about the polluting effects of cooking with gas indoors. Yes, it releases a range of things including PM2.5. I took measurements close to a big burner on my stove and the level was 6-8 micrograms. That’s a third or less of the standard and is present for maybe 30-60 minutes per day; not 24 hours.
You might say that I should go cold in winter because my wood heater may affect others in the neighbourhood. It’s likely that there are asthmatics in the area. How many I don’t know. How many are triggered by smoke rather than mould, house dust, allergens and all the other triggers I don’t know. I might kill the fire but the total emissions reduction given the many other wood burners in the area is likely to be small. That’s why it’s a public heath issue: clean air is a public good par excellence. Any change to be effective will apply to all who share in the air and it will be based on data.