help for a local wood smoke problem
Many people are fed up with being exposed to wood smoke in their towns and suburbs and are concerned about the impacts on their health and the environment.
Trying to get help to reduce local smoke pollution can be very difficult, whether the smoke is from a neighbour's wood heater, fire pit or the burning of vegetation in gardens or paddocks.
The following information is based on the experiences of people across Australia who have tried to address issues with neighbouring wood smoke.
This page provides general information only. For information specific to your area please seek information relevant to your state/territory and local government area. For official information about addressing residential wood smoke pollution, refer to the website of the Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) in your state or territory.
Talk with your neighbour
This is recommended by the EPA as a first step. Hopefully, your neighbour will be concerned about how their smoke may be affecting your health and your ability to enjoy your home and will agree to stop using their heater or to reduce the levels of smoke pollution. It may help to provide information about the health impacts to your neighbour including the harms of wood smoke for their own health, as well as those around them. It may also be useful for them know that (in some areas, such as Victoria and the ACT), there are government rebates they can get to pay for the cost of switching to a healthier form of heating. Asthma Australia have produced a flyer about these rebate schemes (in Vic and ACT) you may wish to put in the letter boxes in your area (see attached - but you can also find via the Asthma Australia website). This may help raise the awareness of your neighbours about the harms of wood smoke including for households who don't currently have a wood heater but might be considering installing one.
While some people may be amendable to changing their burning practices, others consider burning wood in their own home to be something that they have a right to do. Unfortunately, in most areas across Australia there are minimal restrictions on the use of wood heaters. The lack of public awareness about the health and environmental harms and the lack of government restrictions on wood smoke pollution has the effect of reinforcing this 'rights' view.
Councils are required to respond to complaints of wood smoke pollution. They will likely send out an officer to your neighbour's house to talk to your neighbours. If your complaint relates to a firepit or backyard burning, some councils have a local law preventing backyard burning (unless cooking food). If so, the officer can direct the neighbour to cease burning or face penalties, if warranted, according to the local law.
If the smoke problem is from a wood heater, then council officers can inspect the heater and firewood and offer the resident advice in how to operate the wood heater 'correctly'.
In some states and territories, it is an offence to emit ‘excessive’ smoke from a wood heater (for instance, in NSW, a plume of smoke from a chimney should not be visible for more than 10 minutes and should not extend more than 10 meters ). Councils can issue notices requiring people to ensure that their wood heater does not emit excessive smoke. However, councils generally don't have the time or resources available to be monitoring your neighbour’s smoke emissions day and night. Instead, they may suggest you keep a record or diary of the level of smoke that is visible, and/or take photos and videos of the smoke from your neighbour's wood burning. Unfortunately, carrying out this smoke monitoring may mean you often have to go outside to keep checking on the smoke emissions, which means you may be further exposed to smoke pollution.
Even if you do manage to keep a smoke record or diary, the problem is that it can be disputed by your neighbour, who may provide a different version of their use of the wood heater. You may consider purchasing an air quality monitor to provide additional evidence of the levels of harmful particles (PM 2.5) emitted from the wood heater, though in our experience councils do not have clear guidelines about what levels recorded on monitors are excessive or which air quality monitors they consider accurate.
Additionally, unlike with noise pollution (which has clear regulations about what level of noise is acceptable at certain times of the day), there are no clear restrictions on when wood heaters can be used. Research shows that even brief or low-level exposure to wood smoke can harm health. But if your neighbour is operating their heater ‘correctly’ and not producing emissions that are considered ‘excessive’, they can be used any time of day or year and can be used constantly 24/7 without restriction.
You may be able to involve the building regulations section of the council who may inspect the flue and recommend to the neighbour that the height of the chimney be raised or moved. This may make some difference to your exposure to the smoke.
In some states and territories, there may be nuisance legislation that may apply. A nuisance is when someone, such as a neighbour, unreasonably interferes with your ability to use or enjoy your property. Air pollution may be considered a nuisance that has a significant impact on a neighbour’s enjoyment and use of their land. However, in our experience, most councils appear to be very reluctant to use these laws, and there are no clear guidelines for councils on what amounts to a ‘nuisance’.
Environment protection authorities advise residents to attend dispute resolution with their neighbour if their negotiations to address wood smoke have failed. Dispute resolution involves meeting with both parties and a professional mediator who facilitates the discussion about the dispute. However, dispute resolution is a voluntary process and your neighbour may not be prepared to participate – and even if they do, there is no guarantee they will comply with any agreements you reach. In our experience, many people are not prepared to negotiate any changes in their use of wood heaters.
This is likely to be very expensive and we are not aware of any expert legal firms in this area. Some people have used civil laws (such as nuisance laws) to sue a neighbour in relation to their use of wood burning. Others have used the law to challenge the inaction of their Council in the hope they take a firmer approach to a resident polluting their neighbourhood with smoke (for example, by using the nuisance provisions under the state’s Public Health Act). Currently there is limited information about the success of these strategies.
Minimising your exposure
We recommend that you do all that you can to reduce your exposure to wood smoke - if you aren't doing so already. That includes sealing gaps (under doors, around windows, cornices, via vents, exhaust fans, manholes and downlights). You could consider purchasing an air filter - but do your research. There is evidence that they are effective in reducing indoor concentrations of particles from outdoor smoke pollution. But some air filters are little more than fans - including some of the big-name brands. At a minimum, an air filter should be fitted with a HEPA filter. Their effectiveness is often measured by the Clean Air Delivery Rate (CADR) - which most air filters should list. Some consumer organisations like Choice have begun reviewing air filters.
You may also want to look into testing the 'leakiness' or air tightness of your home via companies that conduct 'blower door' tests. These are not cheap, costing many hundreds of dollars. The test generally involves drawing all the air out of your house and using an infrared camera to locate where the air is entering and exiting your home. Many older homes can be very leaky. Of course air tightness needs to be balanced with the need to ventilate your home, and it is not advisable to completely seal a home due to build up of carbon dioxide. In the northern states many homes are designed with ventilation to stay cool, whereas the southern states with colder winters air tightness is often an issue related to energy efficiency. In terms of outdoor air pollution from wood burning minimising your homes leakiness could reduce your exposure. However, it will also be important to regularly ensure good ventilation in your home, such as opening windows for 'fresh' air when smoke levels are low.
Air Quality monitors
You may also want to look into purchasing an air quality monitor. These can help you assess the level of particle pollution (PM2.5) levels in your area and around your home. Local councils, to our knowledge, do not currently support independent air quality monitoring as evidence of pollution levels when assessing a neighbourhood complaint of wood smoke. Most EPAs around the country have air quality monitors and reports levels on their websites. But there are usually too few monitors to pick up localised air pollution and in Victoria at least the Auditor General's audit report found the EPAs limited monitoring does not provide air quality monitoring for most of the state. Though you would be forgiven for thinking you are being provided with information about accurate air pollution levels when you visit the EPA websites.
Some of the newer air filters have a monitor built in and there are also apps and websites such as Air Visual, and PurpleAir. You should have a look at the studies before purchasing one, and consider the extras they might offer (such as a real-time air quality map or app, both indoor and outdoor monitoring, portability and reliability etc). Air quality monitors range in price from $50 to $1000, and the more expensive is not always the more reliable. Some of the better known ones are Air Visual, Kaiterra laser egg and Purple Air along with a dizzyingly number of different brands available to purchase online. We do not recommend any one in particular, as they all have different features. Best to do your homework. The My Air Quality Australia facebook page currently has a deal with Purple Air Monitors offering a reduced price for members. Like air filters - air quality monitors are becoming more accessible and cheaper, with more studies and consumer organisation reviews.
This is not an easy decision but may be something you need to weigh up if all other options have failed. For many people moving is not an option because they simply cannot afford it. In addition, there is no guarantee that the new place you move to will be in a smoke free neighbourhood - this is because it can often be difficult to know if local chimneys are in use, and because new wood heaters being installed all the time (40 - 50,000 annually).
Whatever strategies you try we hope you get some reduction and relief from the smoke. Any small action you can take to address the wider issue of government policy on wood smoke will have a big impact - for example whether this be writing to your local MP, texting or ringing into a radio show discussing the issue, signing a petition on the issue or subscribing to our website.
Joining our campaign
Please consider joining us in calling on governments to end smoke pollution from wood heaters and localised burning.
Our Email campaign page summarises the results of the Vic State Election held in Nov 2022. Stay tuned to this page for campaigns for NSW in 2023.
Our quit wood smoke page has information about how to petition your council, where and how to write to your local MP. Our How can we stop wood smoke pollution page has information about actions you can take to encourage the government to address wood smoke pollution. And feel free to email us, and/or subscribe and we'll be happy to offer whatever support or information we can.