An example of a cosy wood-burning stove causing asthma in a Times journalist

I can think of two problems with wood-burning stoves (a) human health problems and (b) climate change problems. And let’s be clear, wood-burning stoves look great. They make the home look cosy. It’s a real fire and the heat and the flickering glow is best described in a Danish word, “hygge”. I am thankful to Anna Maxted for that word. She used it herself in The Times today. Her family loved the wood-burning stove but it “made my chest felt tight and constricted. Not hygge.”

Wood burner.
Image in the public domain.

She felt that particulates were coating her lungs. I believe she means that the small carbon particles which are referred to as ‘particulates’, and which she obviously knew quite a lot about, were going into her lungs and she was correct.

Woodsmoke from wood stoves adds carbon dioxide and methane to the air. These are two pollutants that contribute significantly to climate change. And they contribute to ill health. You don’t have to research very far to understand that wood-burning stoves can worsen the symptoms of asthma and other respiratory conditions because of the fine particles and toxic substances in woodsmoke. Particulates are also emitted by vehicles through the exhaust and brake linings and also from worn tyres.

They are something to be avoided. Even short-term exposure to wood-burning smoke can cause respiratory symptoms such as shortness of breath, which is exactly what Anna Maxted experienced. She wrote in her article, “Yet, I felt increasingly short of breath. My chest is still tight and aches at night. I can’t exercise without wheezing. By mid-May I was concerned enough to pay for a specialist consultation. The verdict was that I’m sensitive to air pollution and the stove has brought out underlying asthma”.

She developed late onset asthma and it concerns about 20-30% of all new asthma cases. The Guardian urges people to avoid using wood-burning stoves, if possible, because of health concerns.

If you have alternative heating, you should not purchase or use a wood-burning stove despite the fact that they look very cosy and they enhance the ambience of your home. The Guardian reported that the stoves “triple the level of harmful particulates inside the home as well as creating dangerous levels of pollution in the surrounding neighbourhood.” Pollution inside the home is something that should concern far more people than is currently the case.

Experts at Asthma UK and British Lung Foundation urged people not to use them if they have alternative sources of heat.

The symbol for these fine particulates is PM 2.5. They are described as the “most worrying form of air pollution to human health” by Sarah McFadyen head of policy at the above charity. She added, “It’s therefore important to consider less polluting fuel options to heat your home or cook, especially if coal or wood is not your primary fuel source.”

This will come as bad news to many people because there has been a strong uptick in the purchasing of wood-burning stoves over recent years. But it is estimated that they cause almost 40% of outdoor tiny particle pollution. Air pollution inside the home may be far worse than outside. Regrettably, almost 16% of people in the south-east of England use wood fuel. In Northern Ireland it is 18%. Around 175,000 wood-burning stoves are sold annually according to 2016 UK government data.

It isn’t just the pollution they cause both inside and outside the home, people are burning wood which means there are burning trees. Somebody somewhere is cutting down trees. And it’s time we stopped cutting down trees because trees, in using photosynthesis, take carbon dioxide out of the environment.

Regrettably, in the UK, we are burning wood to fuel power stations from wood chips imported from North America. I find it shocking. Regarding reports that “it can take decades or perhaps more than a century for forests to reabsorb this additional carbon from our air. This means greater chances of irreversible climate tipping points before any possible benefits accrue”.

And why is North America so laissez-faire about chopping down the forests? Surely this is a time to preserve and protect forests? It is time to treasure the natural environment. It is time to stop using coal or wood powered power stations. You wouldn’t think that there was a climate change crisis from the way people are behaving.

Burning wood releases more carbon dioxide than oil gas for the same amount of heat or energy. Everybody in the UK should get rid of their wood-burning stoves or keep them as a feature for the home but no more.

Finally, I have to mention our companion animals. They are inside the home too. In fact, they are often inside the home far more than their human caregivers. Think of full-time indoor cats which is a growing concept. If the air quality inside the home is hazardous to people it’s going to be more hazardous to cats. Let’s think of them.

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