Hazel Agombar used to enjoy throwing logs into her wood burner and sitting in front of a roaring fire. That was until she found out how much pollution it was producing -pollution that her whole family was breathing in.
“I work in Southampton council’s active travel team helping children and families avoid transport pollution,” she explains. “But I realised the wood burner we had at home was causing more fine particulate matter than the traffic I was dealing with around schools, and I was really horrified.”
Open fires and stoves burning wood produce tiny specks of soot known as fine particulate matter, or PM2.5, which can cause lung cancer, heart damage, strokes and asthma. Young children and the elderly are particularly vulnerable. The problem has become even pressing in the past year, with numerous studies linking long-term exposure to PM2.5 to an increase in coronavirus deaths.
Despite this, about 1.5 million UK households still burn wood in stoves or fireplaces, and more than 150,000 new wood burners are sold every year. Few rely on them exclusively to heat their homes; ownership is highest in south-east England where most properties are connected to the grid.
Industry association the Stove Industry Alliance is keen to stress that only the more efficient log burners – those labelled ecodesign-ready – will be allowed to be sold from 2022. But two-fifths of stoves sold last year didn’t comply with the tougher rules, and there will be nothing stopping people from using these well into the future.
All that burning has had a demonstrable effect on air pollution. In 2018, 38 per cent of PM2.5 in the UK came from domestic wood burning, according to DEFRA figures, with emissions more than doubling between 2003 and 2018. The stove industry disputes the precise proportion but even the most efficient burners emit unhealthy soot into homes and neighbourhoods, and contribute to national PM levels that exceed World Health Organisation (WHO) recommendations.
PM levels are normally highest during the winter, although research by the Mayor of London’s office showed an increase in particulate matter associated with wood combustion in London during the spring lockdown as people stayed at home. This correlated with a rise in complaints to local authorities about bonfires and domestic burning.
Agombar has just got rid of her log burner and bought an electric version, but is still surrounded by houses that burn wood regularly. She has repeatedly tried to raise awareness of the problem with her neighbours and the local authority, but feels she has hit a wall.
I now dread cold evenings because it gets worse and worse, and I don’t feel safe in my own house
“I said, now’s the moment with a global respiratory pandemic and we know there’s a link with air pollution, and it’s all going under the radar in your area. But the council says it has no legal powers to enforce it.”
Researchers are now going to install air quality monitors on Agombar’s house and her husband has built his own indoor pollution sensor to gather evidence. “We may be able to demonstrate some peaks which will give more clout to our argument.”
The government knows wood burning is a problem, which is why it is phasing out the most polluting fuels. The sale of bags of traditional house coal and small units of wet wood (which creates more smoke) will be banned in England from 1 May. After that date, wet wood in volumes greater than 2 metres cubed will have to be sold with advice on how to dry it before burning. Scotland is planning similar rules.
The ban date was originally set for February but DEFRA quietly shifted it to the end of the peak burning season. Jemima Hartshorn, founder of clean air campaign group Mums for Lungs, is “hugely disappointed” by the delay “because it means another three months of breathing polluted air during a pandemic”. The ban is also only on the sale of dirtier fuels – not their use.
Meanwhile a complete ban on log burners has been explicitly ruled out. Instead, the government says it is working with the stove industry and retailers to raise awareness of the law as it stands and to encourage people to operate and maintain their stoves efficiently.
Campaigners are not convinced this will be effective and feel the current rules lull people into a false sense of comfort. Hartshorn says there’s a widespread lack of awareness of just how harmful wood stoves are, accusing glossy lifestyle magazines and interior design TV programmes of glamourising burners and skirting over their health impacts.
She recently wrote to all London councils asking them to raise awareness among their constituents during the pandemic. Many UK parts of the UK are in smoke control areas, where only ‘DEFRA-approved’ stoves and authorised fuels are permitted. But these rules are notoriously difficult to police and councils say few residents make the link between domestic burning and air pollution.
Hartshorn is also sceptical of new powers being given to councils to fine people who break rules in the Environment Bill, which is currently going through parliament. “It doesn’t come with the power to go into someone’s house. And most people use stoves in the evening. You’re never going to get councils to send out staff in evenings for a fine of, at most, £300.”
The British Lung Foundation says politicians should do far more to increase public awareness of the health dangers of wood burning through a national campaign on toxic air and by encouraging the use of cleaner fuels. “If those policy solutions failed, then a ban may be necessary.”
Others are adamant that only a blanket ban on wood burning in homes with another source of heating will do. “There are more efficient wood stoves but they still pollute and for most people it’s not necessary,” says Agombar.
“We would have been doing the same when we were burning, not thinking for a minute about the impact we were having on our neighbours. I now dread cold evenings because it gets worse and worse, and I don’t feel safe in my own house.”