frequently asked questions
Is wood smoke that bad?
Wood smoke consists of most of the same chemicals as tobacco smoke - just without nicotine. Lighting a wood heater is like lighting up thousands of cigarettes in your chimney. If you use a wood heater you are putting your own and your neighbours’ health at risk. Inhaling wood smoke is particularly harmful to infants and children because their lungs are developing, they breathe more air per kilo of body weight than adults. They also spend more time outdoors. Children exposed to wood smoke have an increased risk of developing asthma and lower respiratory infections such as bronchitis and pneumonia (see our post about the health impacts on children). In Australia, wood smoke is responsible for between $2 and $4 billion in health costs every year.
What are the worst forms of air pollution?
The two most harmful air pollutants to health are particle pollution and ground-level ozone. Particle pollution, also known as particulate matter or PM, is extremely small solid particles and liquid droplets suspended in the air.
Particle pollution comes from burning, such as coal in power plants, wood in wood heaters, petrol in cars, chemicals in industrial processes and vegetation from burning off, planned burns and bushfires. Ground level ozone is the main component of smog and is the product of the interaction between sunlight and emissions from sources such as motor vehicles, industry, and burning of wood. When these gases come in contact with sunlight, they react and form ‘smog’.
Exposure to air pollution can impact individuals, certain groups (such as a regional area, or a neighbourhood) or the entire population. The problem with most air quality monitoring is that it tends to be focused at the population level, whereas the highest levels of pollution are generally experienced at the local level. For example, residents of the Latrobe Valley in Victoria living nearby coal-fired power stations, people who live near major roads and truck thoroughfares and those who live near wood heaters.
Coal-fired power stations produce the single largest source of industrial pollution. While the community is increasingly aware of the health and environmental impacts of coal-fired power stations and vehicle emissions (petrol and diesel), most people are not informed about the harmful impacts of wood smoke. According to the latest Victorian EPA data (2016) Melbourne’s wood heaters contribute 51% of particle pollution in the Port Phillip region, compared to vehicle emissions at 30% (see our Wood Smoke Pollution page for a an analysis of the report) . In NSW smoke from wood heaters is estimated to cause 100 premature deaths per year in Sydney – more than the pollution from power stations or transport (Broome et al. 2020).
Is wood burning harmful to health?
There is extensive and long-established evidence of the health harms of wood smoke. Research and science institutions around the world, including the World Health Organisation, have published numerous reports over the past decades showing there is no safe level of wood smoke. The fine particles in wood smoke travel deep into the lungs and have been found to contribute to heart attacks, strokes, and the development of asthma, lung cancers and dementia. Even short-term exposure has harmful effects on otherwise healthy people.
Are wood heaters environmentally friendly?
Trees are good for the environment but burning them is not. As well as CO2, wood heaters produce smoke that contains black carbon (soot), methane and carbon monoxide. Burning wood – even in a modern wood heater - helps to speed up global warming - as confirmed in a New Scientist report. For more information go to our wood burning and climate page.
What is the most environmentally friendly way to heat your home?
The evidence shows that electric reverse cycle heat pumps are the most energy efficient way to heat your home. For further information visit the website for the Australian Energy Foundation who provide a complete guide for ways to heat your home.
Why can't local councils and the EPA fix wood heater problems?
Because wood heaters are typically operated outside of business hours –council officers can't be there when most use occurs and they do not sit outside to monitor use. They also cannot sit in people's lounge room to monitor what they burn. Contaminated wood can be easily hidden. Consequently, people can burn treated, painted or damp wood, allow heaters to smoulder overnight to save on firewood, and burn their rubbish. Residents affected by wood smoke pollution often find local council officers provide little help. Any increased efforts by a Council officer to improve the use of a wood heater generally takes time, in the meantime whole neighbourhoods can be subject to hazardous levels of pollution for months, years and decades.
The EPA does not effectively monitor air pollution from wood heaters because it only provides a small number of air quality monitoring stations. These cannot measure the highly concentrated levels of smoke that those living next to a wood heater may regularly be exposed to. As the stories of residents demonstrate, most are left without protection from toxic smoke.
How are wood heaters regulated?
Most states and territories have a similar system of regulating wood heaters.
For example, in Victoria, the variation to the Waste Management Policy (Solid fuel Heating) 2018 sets a framework
for protecting the air environment from wood smoke pollution.
The Victorian EPA has responsibility for:
Regulating the manufacture and sale of wood heaters
Providing advice about wood heater emissions and how to reduce them to minimise health impacts
Monitoring air pollution.
Local governments have responsibility for:
responding to nuisance from wood heaters, under the Victorian Public Health and Wellbeing Act 2008.
responding to issues raised under applicable local planning laws, such as building design and setbacks.
The Victorian Building Authority (VBA) regulates the installation of solid fuel heaters, including chimney heights, under the Building Act 1993 and the Plumbing Regulations 2018.
There is no national regulation of wood heaters. Instead, the federal Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment provides a National Clean Air Agreement, which sets a framework for national collaboration to address air quality issues. There is also federal legislation titled the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 which provides a legal framework to protect and manage nationally and internationally important flora, fauna, ecological communities and heritage places.
What about people who can't afford anything other than a wood heater?
Our governments need to do more to ensure that people can afford healthy and energy efficient heating. This is so that people with wood heaters are not being exposed to harmful levels of pollution simply because they cannot afford anything else. People on low incomes are more likely to have health conditions and these can be exacerbated by wood smoke pollution.
Wood heaters are expensive to run properly as they need clean, dry firewood. However, the way many people afford wood heaters is by using toxic wood from building sites, Facebook, freecycle, other community forums, and signs on the side of the road offering ‘free fire wood’. If only clean dry firewood is purchased, then the cost of running a wood heater is more expensive than non-polluting options such as reverse cycle/heat pumps.
Wood heaters are increasingly operated for lifestyle and recreational reasons - not because people can't afford anything else. A look at the lifestyle section of most high-end house magazines will confirm that cost is not a factor for many people installing new wood heaters. People considering buying a new wood heater need to be informed about the risks to their own health and that of the local community, as well as how smoke pollution contributes to climate change.
Victoria and ACT have rebate schemes to encourage people switch to healthier heating. Asthma Australia have produced a flyer about these schemes that can be put in local letter boxes.
What can I do about a neighbour's wood heater?
You can try talking to your neighbour. This is usually the first option recommended by Environment Protection Agencies in most states and territories. If this doesn't help to reduce the levels of wood smoke, you may wish to contact your local council for assistance. They may suggest you keep a 'smoke diary' to record levels of wood smoke. Council Officers can visit your neighbour and instruct them in 'correct operation' of their wood heater. However, many residents say these measures are not protecting them from ongoing exposure to wood smoke pollution. For a full description of the options please see our page on Help for a local wood smoke problem
Does correct operation of a wood heater reduce smoke emissions?
Poor use will put out more smoke. However, the only time emissions are known to be low is in highly controlled laboratory testing conditions. Even then, lab tests ignore start-up emissions. Real people in real life don't operate heaters perfectly. And even correctly operated wood heaters produce significant emissions at startup. Where people use them as their sole source of heating, they can be in operation 24/7, continuously emitting harmful smoke that pollutes the local environment.
How would replacing wood heaters affect the wood heating industry?
Industries have to change and adapt all the time. Businesses have a responsibility to do the right thing for their communities and protect public health and the environment. Just like tobacco, smoke from wood heaters is toxic to human health. This puts the health of wood heater owners and those living near them at risk and costs the government billions in unnecessary health costs.
Are new wood heaters better than the old ones?
The real-life emissions of new wood heaters are almost as bad as older models. For example, research indicates that the average brand-new wood heater emits as much PM2.5 (the most health-hazardous air pollutant) in the first hour of use as the average petrol car emits in an entire year.
What about towns where this is no mains gas?
Towns that have no mains gas still have mains electricity. A heat pump or reverse cycle air conditioner is one of the cheapest and most environmentally friendly ways to heat your home.
For example, a project in Christchurch - the Clean Heat Project - replaced wood heating in 1,973 households, along with improved insulation and an efficient reverse cycle air-conditioner. The project found that the average increase in electricity use was just 1% (O’Connell et al. 2010).