• How Does Domestic Wood Burning Effect Air Quality?

Air Monitoring

How Does Domestic Wood Burning Effect Air Quality?

Jan 05 2023

These days, burning wood for heat or energy is exceedingly uncommon, only retained as an personal preference – in the UK, at least. The figures put the number of houses fitted with a wood-burner, for instance, at just 8%, and the distribution skews fairly wealthy (in shocking contrast to the rest of the world, of course). It may come as a shock to those who do burn wood that it has an incredibly significant environmental footprint on air quality, releasing as it burns dangerous particulates, gases, and chemical compounds into the air. Mostly the threats posed by this pollution are threats to public health, rather than the environment, but the business of wood burning might be responsible for its fair share of ecological disruption.  

But, for now, what are the threats to public health and where are they coming from? Mostly, from particulate matter, tiny particles that can breach the lung barrier and enter the blood. The sheer variety of harms effectuated by these particles is jaw-dropping, having been linked to asthma, heart attacks, strokes, cancers, dementia and the loss of intelligence, liver damage, foetal and infantile maldevelopment. In other words, they’re very dangerous! And wood-burners release many more of these particulates than any vehicle on any of Britain’s roads, with DEFRA-approved, officially safe units managing to pump out about 750% of the particulates produced by heavy goods vehicles. Then, there’s carbon monoxide, infamous for being colourless and odourless but no less toxic, capable of killing those who inhale too much. More importantly, though, burning wood released volatile organic compounds like benzene, formaldehyde and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, chemicals that evaporate at room temperature to cause eye, nose, and throat irritation, not to mention headaches and nausea. To put some numbers to these harms: between 26,000 and 38,000 deaths are linked to air pollution every single year in England. Besides these more explicitly harmful aspects, the burning of wood for fuel or heating tends to produce what is usually referred to as ‘nuisance odour’, any aroma that is disruptive and uncomfortable for those in the area. It isn’t dangerous, but it does decrease quality of life.  

As I warned, there is a fair amount of environmental damage of which to take account, too. First off, it contributes to climate change by releasing carbon dioxide. But, given the infrequency of wood burning, there are bigger polluters to fry. The most prominent environmental harm is, rather, an indirect result of wood burning: the deforestation required to supply the logs. As the price of firewood began to creep up throughout the late 1990s and early 2000s as a result of necessary environmental protections, the general quality of the wood used for burning has decreased in the last few decades as loggers skirted the outer limits of legal safety. Not only does this ensure higher concentrations of pollutants, but greater deforestation.  

To reduce the negative effects of wood burning on outdoor air quality, it is important to use dry, seasoned wood and to avoid burning wet or treated wood, as it releases more pollutants into the air. Proper maintenance can also help reduce their emissions. But all in all, there’s very little benefit in any form of wood burning, and precious few ways to really curb its impact barring total abstinence. Some have called for a uniform ban on wood-burning stoves as well as pellet boilers. Wood burning has a significant impact on outdoor air quality, and it is important to use wood burning appliances responsibly in order to protect public health and the environment. If you’re in the market for one, perhaps look out for an air-source heat pump, instead. You’ll breathe a little easier.

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