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For the sake of public health, we must change the way we talk about burning wood

When we think of air pollution we tend to think of industrial smog and heavy traffic.

Thankfully, interventions have reduced some of the air pollution caused by diesel and coal in recent decades. So why haven’t we seen a reduction in harmful fine particulate pollution?

In the last 10 years, air pollution from wood burning stoves has doubled. Domestic combustion – the burning of solid fuels including wood burning stoves and open fires – is now the number one source of harmful fine particulate matter in the UK, accounting for 27.5% of PM2.5.

And worryingly, sales of wood burning stoves continue to go up, having increased by almost 40% in the last year.

Research has found that most people who burn wood do so for the aesthetic purpose of creating a cosy, warm atmosphere, rather than out of necessity for heating or cooking. And yet awareness amongst the public of the contribution of domestic woodburning to air pollution is low.

Given this lack of awareness, there’s massive potential to improve public health if we can communicate effectively about how woodburning contributes to air pollution.

Toxic health impacts

Wood burning affects everyone – both the health of the people who choose to burn, and people in their neighbourhoods. But not everyone is affected equally. If you live in a city, are from a minoritised community, or if you are a child, older person, or person with a health condition, you’re more likely to get ill because of air pollution. 

Every time you smell wood burning, you’re inhaling toxic air. Considering air pollution contributes up to 43,000 deaths in the UK (up to 4,000 of those in London) it’s clear that reducing wood burning is an urgent public health issue. That’s particularly the case in urban areas where the evidence shows that most people have other heat sources and burn for aesthetic purposes.

What can local authorities do?

There are three core issues at play that must be central to public health communications including from local authorities and campaigners: low levels of public awareness, the devastating health impacts, and an urgent a need to reduce air pollution. To meet these head on, we need to understand how to effectively communicate to influence the behaviour change needed to reduce the uptake and usage of wood burners in cities.

The steps for doing that are evidenced in new research commissioned by Impact on Urban Health, with Kantar, Dog Cat & Mouse, and Global Action Plan.

First, any campaigns for change must consistently highlight the link between indoor wood burning and air pollution to shift social norms. People consistently underrate the impact of wood burning on PM2.5 air pollution compared to other sources. So, by talking about it relative to other categories already strongly linked with pollution, such as traffic and industry, we can start to change perceptions and shift behaviour.

Second, timing is of the essence – early Autumn, when most people look to buy wood stoves, has the greatest potential to disrupt behaviour. On the other hand, most purchases will have been made by the winter, meaning communications should focus on burning better and burning less.

Next, any messaging should come in unison from public health organisations, working with local health experts to communicate the issue as trusted messengers.

Lastly, we must acknowledge that this is a developing field of understanding. It might seem like “new news”, but the figures are sufficiently stark to warrant immediate action.

Further action is in our grasp

Recent research conducted for The Guardian found that 67% of Londoners support a ban on wood burning stoves when they understand its contribution to air pollution. So, if we can effectively raise further awareness it means we can reduce the number of people in cities buying wood burners while encouraging people who already own them to use them less. Doing so has the potential to considerably improve health.

This can, and must, be taken further. We need to influence behaviour across towns and cities and over time create space for greater Westminster government action in response to growing societal pressure.

We need continued communications and influencing on this issue, from a broad set of clean air advocates. At Impact on Urban Health, we’re looking forward to supporting our partners to build on this evidence and reduce pollution in urban areas.

Read more about Impact on Urban Health’s new research into communicating about wood burning here. 

Rachel Pidgeon is a Portfolio Manager on the Health effects of air pollution programme at Impact on Urban Health

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Alan Barlow
Alan Barlow
7 months ago

Very interesting view point. What about the homes that use wood fire stoves as heating, boil water and have them as there main form of heating, to save money. Instead of using Gas and Electric. !?

chris
chris
7 months ago

Many thanks, this is so important now that summer is coming to a close. Please remember that the life and health of some of us in rural parts of Britaincan also be made absolute misery by wood burning neighbours, whether from stoves, cooking outside or bonfires. When I enquire I am told, sometimes politely sometimes not, to mind my onw business and shut MY windows. They really do not get it. Please can someone get the NHS to put up warnings at surgeries this winter, ideally alongside the ‘flu & covid vaccine posters? Wood smoke kills too, even though it can take many years to weaken you first so you might not realise. Afterall, it involves burning plant materials (i.e. trees) so it’s not so different from cigarette smoking (minus the nicotine which I’ve been told causes addiciton but not lung damage – does anyone here know?). Even just a small amount of wood smoke in your lungs every day (or night) – and then your bloodstream and other organs can damage your health, or that of your children or parents. This is still not widely recognised. Wood stoves have become very popular. But how many families really need to burn wood in 2023? Does anyone know how many homes are off-grid with no other form of heating? if so,they need help to use something else (but such as?) or at least get the least polluting stove possible and to check the emssions. Isn’t it time to ban all wood burning (and coal) in most homes in UK, towns and villages as well? Thanks again. But please don’t ignore the fact that just one or two really bad wood stoves can pollute a whole village as well as a town street.

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