Everyday Enviro with Elise: the real impact of winter warming

Everyday Enviro with Elise: the real impact of winter warming

    By Elise Catterall  May 11th, 2022

    As we look towards the cold winter months, Elise looks at the health and environmental impacts of open fireplaces and wood burning heaters.


    Open fireplaces and wood burning heaters are synonymous with comfort and cosy winter warmth, but the reality of burning wood in our homes, especially in high or medium density urban and suburban areas, is far from appealing. There are two big reasons for this – their contribution to air pollution and their impact on health, which is linked back to pollutants. Remember when Sydney had air quality safety warnings during the 2020 bushfires? It’s the same concept.

    Let’s look at the air pollution issue first because it’s a doozy – and it applies to both open fires and wood-burning heaters. Although heaters pollute less than open fires, they are still responsible for a substantial contribution to air pollution in NSW, affecting both the air around the home and the surrounding area. The smoke from open fire and wood-burning heaters contains a mix of particles and gasses, including particulate matter PM10 and PM2.5, carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxide, and other (cancer causing) organic compounds – for example, formaldehyde, benzene and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons.

    Cold nights in built-up areas can see air pollution surpass particulate levels well over the World Health Organisation’s recommended limit of 5 micrograms of gaseous pollutant per cubic meter of ambient air(µg/m3)and some anecdotal reports have found levels up near 100 µg/m3. It has been reported that on a winter weekend day in Sydney, the contribution of wood heaters to PM10 and PM2.5 particle pollution can be as high as 48% and 60%.

    It’s the particulate levels that are linked with significant health issues, especially PM2.5. The particulates are so small they act like a gas, able to penetrate both the lungs and enter the bloodstream. They are potentially harmful to all of us but especially those who are vulnerable, like pregnant women, babies, the elderly population, and those with already compromised respiratory systems. According to the Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment, the smoke from wood burning heaters is associated with asthma, heart problems, chronic lung disease and even premature births and deaths.

    And it isn’t just humans that feel the toll of this. Wildlife is just as adversely affected by air pollution, and bird species are especially vulnerable to high particulate levels.

    The way forward should be the phasing out of wood burning heaters in high density areas. In the meantime, the Clean Air Regulation is in place and requires that all new solid fuel home slow combustion heaters sold in NSW (local and imported) comply with the Australian Standard for Pollution Emissions (AS 4013).

    On top of that, there are some general guidelines to minimise indoor and outdoor pollution from heaters. The first to consider (especially if you are in urban or suburban area) is whether you really need to light the fire. Otherwise, ensure only appropriate wood is burned (dry, seasoned, untreated wood), make sure that fires are not left to smoulder overnight, and don’t overload the heater with wood, which encourages smouldering.

    The best advice on top of all of this is to work toward having a well-insulated home so the requirement for any heating is reduced – this includes installing wall and ceiling insulation, adding curtains, blocking drafts, and using thermal mass in floors and walls.

    One last point, we all have a right to clean air, so if there is excessive smoke from home wood burning (indoor or out) in your area, you can report it to your local council.

    Planet Ark does not take responsibility for the accuracy of the original information and encourages readers to check the references before using this information for their own purposes.


    Elise Catterall

    Elise is a writer, photographer, and naturopath with a passion for nature. She completed a Master of Public Health in 2017 through the University of Sydney. Her photographic work focuses on flowers and plants as a way of celebrating nature. She has been writing for Planet Ark since 2017, sharing positive environment stories, personal environmental experiences and perspectives.

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