A FAILURE to adequately regulate or replace wood heaters in Australia despite their major contribution to air pollution is costing lives and money, a growing number of studies suggest.

Research published in the MJA has estimated that in the northern NSW town of Armidale, population 24 504, 14 premature deaths per year are attributable to long term exposure to wood heater pollution, at an estimated financial cost of $32.8 million.

Around 40% of households in Armidale use wood for heating, with each heater linked with $10 930 in health-related financial costs per year, the study estimated.

The study compared fine particulate matter (PM2.5) levels between the winter and summer months to estimate the magnitude of wood heater pollution.

Similar studies have recently found wood heater smoke is linked to premature mortality in Tasmania and Sydney – also showing wood heaters account for more PM2.5 exposure than traffic and power stations in Sydney.

At the time of writing, the Andrews government in Victoria announced it would begin providing $1000 rebates to support low income households to replace their old heaters with energy-efficient reverse cycle systems.

Lead author of the Armidale study, Dr Dorothy Robinson, a statistician and Armidale councillor, welcomed the announcement and said similar schemes were needed throughout Australia.

“Helping low income households enjoy affordable, energy-efficient heating is a win for health and a win for the environment,” she told InSight+.

“Providing every wood heater owner in Armidale with funds to replace heating and upgrade insulation would take a modest amount of funding compared with the estimated cost of the lost years of life of $10 930 per heater per year.”

She cited evidence from the successful Launceston Wood Heater Replacement Program in Tasmania from 2001 to 2004. Funded by the Howard government at a cost of $2.05 million (approximately $29 per resident), the scheme saw the prevalence of wood heaters in Launceston fall from 66% to 30% of all households.

Improvements in air quality as a result of the Launceston scheme were linked with reduced annual mortality in males and reduced cardiovascular and respiratory mortality during winter months, according to a study in the BMJ. However, progress stalled once the subsidies ceased and residents installed new wood heaters.

Professor Fay Johnston, a public health specialist and author on both the Armidale and Launceston studies, told InSight+:

“We really need concerted federal, state and local government support to reduce wood heater pollution.

“There is no evidence that Australia’s main strategies of ‘public education on heater operation’ or gradual tightening of wood heater emission standards, has improved community-level air quality anywhere.

“The only interventions with good evidence for improving the air are those that reduce wood heater numbers.”

It was not a message everyone was happy to hear, Professor Johnston acknowledged.

“Wood heaters are so lovely and appreciated for their attributes – it’s hard to face the harms that go with them,” she said.

However, Professor Johnston said the tide of public opinion appeared to be turning.

A 2020 nationally representative survey by Asthma Australia of 25 000 people found 77% agreed that woodfire heaters should not be allowed in urban or built-up areas, and over half agreed they should be phased out or banned completely.

Professor Johnston said she was not in favour of banning wood heaters or their sales.

“There’s still a place for them on bush blocks in rural and remote areas,” she said. “But they shouldn’t be used in populated areas, especially in places like valleys where air pollution pools.”

Real-world burn conditions were very different from the efficient burn conditions in laboratories where standards were assessed, she noted.

A New Zealand study found that in real-world conditions, modern heaters far exceeded the emissions standards to which they had been built.

Failings in the regulation of the wood heater sector were detailed in a 2013 federal inquiry into the health impacts of air quality. Efforts to revise the standard for wood heaters began in 2003 but broke down when consensus could not be reached between industry and other stakeholders, the inquiry’s final report noted.

Professor Christine Jenkins, chair of the Lung Foundation Australia said there was “a substantial body of evidence for the adverse effects of woodfire smoke on respiratory, cardiovascular and all-cause mortality globally”.

“PM2.5 particles are pro-inflammatory and cause coronary and respiratory inflammation,” she said. “Acute ischaemic events occur more often on high PM2.5 days.

“Larger particles cause airway irritation, mucus secretion and nasal and conjunctival inflammation,” she added.

Dr James Markos, a respiratory physician in Launceston said he had met hundreds of people affected by wood smoke.

“I have seen many people end up in hospital with asthma attacks from it and many more who are affected and who have to use much more medication to treat symptoms and avoid hospital,” Dr Markos said.

Dr Markos said there was no safe level of wood smoke exposure.

“It is identical to the risk of lung cancer from passive smoking,” he said. “So, if you live in a smoky hollow, you are playing Russian roulette with whether you might end up with lung cancer after 20 or more years.”

Professor Michael Abramson, Professor of Clinical Epidemiology at Monash University said there was “a strong case for public money to be spent on replacing old inefficient wood heaters, preferably with modern electric heating, such as reverse cycle air conditioning”.

A spokesperson for the federal Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment said there had been a downward trend in wood heater emissions since the early 1990s, based on data from the Australian Greenhouse Emissions Information System.

“Under the National Clean Air Agreement, Australia’s environment ministers have committed to reducing emissions from wood heaters,” the spokesperson said.

“Most states and territories have adopted new wood heater emissions and efficiency standards and have published best-practice guidance for using wood heaters.”

Also online first at the MJA

Podcast: Dr Dorothy Robinson, Adjunct Senior Research Fellow at the University of New England in Armidale … FREE ACCESS permanently.

Perspective: The ABCD of the comprehensive geriatric assessment
Kaur et al; doi: 10.5694/mja2.51203FREE ACCESS for 1 week.




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10 thoughts on “Wood heaters: lung cancer risk equivalent to passive smoking

  1. Anonymous says:

    Laws need to be made to prevent people using wood to heat their homes harming the rest of us. This article is the sensible discussion we need. The health effects should definitely drive us to full prohibition of all solid fuels and with some urgency. I am sick to death of people’s selfishness and wilful ignorance. It is selfishness and ignorance that led to me being driven from my home by wood smoke pollution. WE NEED TO BAN BURNING WOOD.

  2. Anonymous says:

    We too have a wood heater (Jetmaster) and regret the demise of wood fires. However, we agree in built-up areas they need to be banned.

    Purchasing well-seasoned hardwood is expensive and, if one doesn’t use it all, it has to be properly stored around the house somewhere which may increase the risk of attracting termites. This year, we didn’t use the fire place at all and we missed sitting around the fire place.

    We too are fed up with neighbours burning unsuitable and unseasoned wood, pruned material from the garden, etc. Smoke and smell from these fires is not only unpleasant it may well be unhealthy. Well-seasoned hardwood leaves very little ashes, generally does not smell, or has a pleasant smell, and does not cause much smoke. However, as mentioned above, it is a very expensive form of heating and many people are just not prepared to purchase good fire wood. Apart from that, chimneys and flues must be swept prior to the winter season (another expense many people avoid) and chimney sweeps are getting harder and harder to come by these days.

  3. Anonymous says:

    Over 8 million premature deaths from burning of fossil fuels every year world wide, and yet you call for replacement of wood-fired heaters with electric ones, without specifying that they would have to be powered by renewable energy to make any positive difference?

  4. Andrew Jamieson says:

    What is the incidence of lung cancer etc. in communities where there is frequent exposure to wood smoke eg. remote aboriginal communities, rural India, Pacific islands compared to Armidale?

  5. Anonymous says:

    In my area it’s not socially disadvantaged people who are installing wood heaters. These people are relatively affluent and can afford to buy wood and pollute the entire neighbourhood so they can sit in front of a fire. It is extremely unlikely they will give up their heaters willingly. Retailers such as Bunnings have entire rows of fire pits etc and these are being used in backyards in the suburbs. Remember when incinerators were banned in the suburbs? Well we’ve gone back to burning stuff. It also doesn’t help that architects and home magazines are producing glossy articles showing wood heaters as a desirable addition. All of these need to be banned to clean up the air in our cities.

  6. A/Professor Vicki Kotsirilos AM says:

    Excellent study published in MJA and article in Insight. Thank you to the researchers and authors.
    Chronic lung disease associated with wood heaters is so under-recognised by the health professionals!

  7. Kerry Dawborn says:

    My wood burning stove cooks my food for two months of the year, as well as heating my hot water and topping up the space heating in my house which is otherwise taken care of by the passive solar design. I generally only on the stove for a few hours in the evening – with the exception of maybe five days where it might be run all the time. I have done everything I can and I’m always looking for new ways, to use the fire less, including solar ovens etc. I can’t help wondering about the emissions that might be caused if I was heating my water and my house and cooking my food or some other way. All of these things are done at the same time using the one small fire. The rest of the year everything happens either because of the passive solar design of the house when it comes to temperature management, or from my off grid solar system.
    I guess I get pretty tired of the attacks on the use of wood as fuel. One of the reasons why I choose it, is that it’s something I can control. A lot of the wood that I burn is what other people would be burning in this area when they do bushfire cleanup. Some of it also comes from my fruit trees when I prune them.
    While I agree that there is a need for the use of wood as a fuel to be done properly, and to be done preferably in houses that are properly insulated and efficient so that there is an ability to use less wood etc, personally my experience where I live is that there is a much greater problem with woodsmoke from controlled burns, bushfire cleanup burns and bushfires.
    Can we please have some sensible broad discussion about this issue, in a way that recognises that there are situations in which Wood is a valid, empowering and sensible fuel when used in an appropriate way? Can we recognise that for many people who are able and willing to source their own wood, this fuel source helps people to save money and gives them a little bit more economic power in their lives.
    If we really want to make a difference in people‘s health and well-being, I think the place to start is to make houses much more efficient so that they can retain the heat and dramatically reduce the amount of any kind of heating that is needed. It wouldn’t make sense to try to stop someone like me from using Wood to the degree that I do – because most of the wood that I use is going to be burned anyway in a bushfire cleanup.
    Replacing wood heaters with reverse cycle air-conditioners or similar will probably be a great idea for some people, but for heaven‚s sake if you’re going to force them into being reliant on buying energy to heat their homes when they may not have had to spend money previously, then at least help them make their house more efficient so that they can keep their energy bills down… but for others who don’t want to change, work with them so that they can use their fires less from having more efficient houses. A hell of a lot of the houses in the area where I live a little better than tense in terms of maintaining a comfortable temperature.

  8. Armando says:

    Wood burning to keep warm and for cooking has been used since the cave man and the middle ages, very interesting new point of view and probably the past ancient times our ancestors died of lung cancer or some form of chronic lung condition that’s unknown to these poor ignorant people from the millennium ages of the past.

  9. Glen Harland says:

    Time to treat wood burners like cigarette smoking social pariahs and impose heavy taxes and bans. At least cigarette smokers don’t subject entire neighbourhoods to their selfish filthy habit.

  10. Roger Livsey says:

    Wood fires destroy a lot of habitat

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