wood smoke in australia
Despite what some people may think, wood smoke is not in a special category of 'healthy' smoke. Just like tobacco, it’s a carcinogen . Multiple studies have found it causes lung cancer, heart disease, respiratory illnesses, stroke and dementia. It is also a significant source of black carbon emissions, the largest green house radiative forcer after carbon dioxide.
In winter, wood smoke is the largest single source of air pollution in many Australian cities. In Sydney, while only 4.4% of households use wood heaters, they contribute 46% of PM2.5 exposure (Fig 13, page 19 draft NSW Clean Air Strategy). This is more than all vehicle emissions. In fact, it’s estimated that a brand new wood heater will emit more air pollution (PM2.5) in the first hour after lighting than a petrol car emits in an entire year of driving.
EPA's 2016 Air Pollution Emissions Inventory report
On 29 September 2021 the Victorian EPA released their 2016 emissions inventory report which reveals wood heaters to be the largest contributor to human-generated fine particle pollution (51% in Metropolitan Melbourne) and the second largest contributor to Victoria's carbon monoxide pollution (31% of total) and volatile organic compounds (18%) [p.18]. The report makes four recommendations - to reduce wood heater emissions, to reduce motor vehicles (which produce 59% of carbon monoxide, and 70% of oxides of nitrogen for Melbourne) and to reduce sulfur dioxide levels in the Latrobe Valley (87% of sulfur dioxide emissions for Victoria) [p.14]. This emissions data is consistent with the draft NSW Clean Air Strategy (as noted above].
The Victorian EPA report is further evidence of the large burden of pollution produced by a minority of households with wood heaters. The existing strategies of government (burn better education to wood heater owners) have proven to be ineffective. The table to the right (or below) from the Victorian EPA 2016 Emissions Inventory Report finds wood heaters contribute the largest proportion of fine particle pollution PM2.5 (4029 million tonnes annually) into the atmosphere in Victoria than any other man-made source by (page 73). At this critical time - when we are faced with increasing air pollution events as a result of climate change including from bushfires (see Wood burning and Climate page)- we need to address the air pollution sources we can control and that includes domestic wood heating, coal and gas fuelled power plants and vehicle emissions.
The impacts of living near a wood heater
For people who live in areas with nearby wood heaters, the air in and around their home is often heavily polluted. This not only has a damaging impact on their health (see our page on the health impacts), it also significantly undermines many people's enjoyment and use of their home and neighbourhood. It prevents residents from being able to open windows, dry their washing outside and reduces the time they can spend in their backyards. Wood smoke affects children's developing lungs and living near a wood heater can prevent children from being able to play in their backyards. Having to live with these restrictions can significantly impact on the mental and physical health of residents.
Wood smoke doesn't necessarily drift up into the air and dissipate
Many people assume wood smoke drifts away - when in fact, depending on weather conditions, invisible, ultra-fine particles from wood burning can remain suspended in the air for many hours and even days.
Smoke particles can also be blown for many kilometres into other towns and suburbs, which causes poor air quality for the whole community. The ability of smoke particles to travel and linger in the air was demonstrated by the 2019-2020 summer bushfire season in Australia. An estimated 445 people died from the bushfire smoke, even though they lived hundreds of kilometres away from the fires.
We need action now to stop wood smoke pollution
While the science is well established, initiatives to reduce the harms of wood burning are a long way behind. Prominent health and environmental groups say phasing out wood heaters is needed to protect our health and environment. Yet Australian governments have been reluctant to put public health first when confronted with a popular product and a large profitable industry.
We need to phase out the installation of new wood heaters, inform people about the health and environmental harms of backyard burning, and support people to change to non-polluting forms of heating. After all - we all share the air.
To learn more go to our Quit Woodsmoke page which also includes links to information about cleaner forms of home heating.
(1)The Victorian Environment Protection Authority (EPA’s PIA on Solid Fuel Heating) acknowledges 'there is no evidence of a level of particulate matter (PM) where health effects do not occur’ and that ‘particulate matter.. was classified as a human carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer in 2013.’ Fine particles 'are easily inhaled and can be retained in, or absorbed through, a person’s lungs. The health effects of particle exposure include increased mortality rates, cardiopulmonary disease and reduced lung function’. The EPA states that ‘strong associations were also found for admissions for asthma in children (0–14 years) and all age groups’.
 There are an estimated 900,000 homes with wood heaters in Australia, along with open fireplaces, the burning of garden waste, and the increasingly popular use of fire pits. Some 30 – 40,000 wood heaters are sold every year.
 A brand-new wood heater operated under strict standards in Australia produces about 20 grams of PM2.5 in the first hour after it is lit. By comparison, petrol cars emit only 1 gram of PM2.5 per 1,000 km of driving. See wood heater vs car comparison
 A 2018 submission to Victoria’s Air Quality Statement by the Melbourne Energy Institute, the Clean Air and Urban Landscapes Hub, the Lung Health Research Centre and the Centre for Air Pollution and Energy Research noted that ‘one of the most effective measures we can take to improve air quality is to phase out wood heaters to low polluting forms of home heating’.