You’ve just come back from a long walk, the house is cold so you light the fire and sit down with a cup of tea to read your book. To many people, this probably sounds like the perfect way to spend a lockdown afternoon, but in fact, there is something quite sinister going on here.
According to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), wood and coal fires are the single biggest source of particulate matter (PM2.5) pollution in the UK. Even in London, which has had smoke–controlled areas for more than 60 years, researchers at King’s College London found that wood burning was responsible for between 23 – 31% of all PM2.5 pollution.
Because of their size – about 30 times smaller in width than that of a human hair – PM2.5 is one of the most dangerous air pollutants when it comes to human health. These tiny pollutants can travel deep into the respiratory tract where they can lead to numerous health problems, from asthma, lung cancer, cardiovascular disease, dementia and pregnancy loss.
Yet despite the carcinogenic properties of these particles, lighting up a wood burning stove or an open fire remains hugely popular, indeed an estimated 175,000 wood burners are sold in the UK every year.
Wood burners triple the level of harmful pollution particles inside homes and should be sold with a health warning, say scientists, who also advise that they should not be used around elderly people or children.
The tiny particles flood into the room when the burner doors are opened for refuelling, a study found. Furthermore, people who load in wood twice or more in an evening are exposed to pollution spikes two to four times higher than those who refuel once or not at all.
The particles can pass through the lungs and into the body and have been linked to a wide range of health damage, particularly in younger and older people.
The government is phasing out the sale of wet wood, which produces more smoke, but the people in the study used only dry, seasoned wood. Wood and coal burning in homes is estimated to cause almost 40% of outdoor tiny particle pollution, but the new research is among the first to analyse indoor pollution in real-life settings.
“Our findings are a cause for concern,” said Rohit Chakraborty, of the University of Sheffield, who led the study. “It is recommended that people living with those particularly susceptible to air pollution, such as children, the elderly or vulnerable, avoid using wood-burning stoves..
But some people without central heating rely on wood burners for heat, and Chakraborty did not call for a ban. “We should leave it to people to decide, but they should at least know what’s going on," He added.
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