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The sinister truth about your stylish wood-burning stove

The popularity of wood-burning stoves has risen dramatically in recent years. Around 1.5 million UK households now have one, with an estimated 200,000 wood burners continuing to be sold each year.  

Despite their comforting appeal, there is growing concern about the adverse impact they are having on public health. Campaigners and health experts alike are calling on people who have alternative sources of heating to avoid using their wood burners unless it’s truly necessary. 

So why do wood-burning stoves remain so popular with the public when they are a major source of both indoor and outdoor air pollution? Is it lack of awareness, lack of understanding, or lack of regulation?

In this blog post, we uncover the concerning truth behind the growing trend for these stylish yet sinister stoves.

Why is there such a burning desire for wood-burning stoves?

A common argument in favour of wood-burning stoves is that they provide an affordable and efficient source of heating. They are thought to be three times more efficient than an open fire, and can be used as an additional form of heating to reduce bills. In some cases, they are even the sole heat source, making them essential for some homes.

However, it seems that the households using wood burners to save money or as their main form of heating are certainly in the minority. A report, produced by Kantar for the Government, found that 46% of those using indoor burners were doing so for reasons of ‘tradition’ or ‘aesthetics’, the same proportion that were from the highest AB social grades. 

Habit was also an important factor, with 79% of people with fires at home reporting that they had one when they were younger. Interestingly, just 24% said they were burning to save money, and 8% out of necessity. It was also found that more than nine out of ten homes with wood-burning stoves have other sources of heating. 

While they are occasionally used for practical reasons, the popularity of wood-burning stoves undoubtedly lies in the fact that they have become the epitome of comfort and style in both traditional and modern homes. 

Often featured on so-called “Cottagecore” Instagram accounts and romantic rental listings, they are associated with peace, warmth and comfort. Would people find them so comforting if they knew the impact they were having on their health?

Why are wood-burning stoves so harmful to our health?

A study from the University of Sheffield found that wood burners triple the level of PM2.5 inside homes. Particles tend to flood into the room when the burner doors are opened for refuelling, and people who load wood twice or more in an evening are exposed to pollution spikes two to four times higher than those who refuel once or not at all.

Due to their size – about 30 times smaller in width than that of a human hair – PM2.5 is one of the most harmful air pollutants when it comes to human health. These tiny pollutants can travel deep into the respiratory tract and bloodstream where they can lead to a wide range of health problems including asthma, lung cancer, cardiovascular disease, dementia, and Parkinson’s disease. The effects of PM2.5 are particularly pronounced for children, pregnancies, and the elderly, and recent studies have connected long-term exposure to an increase in COVID-19 deaths.

Furthermore, the pollution problems are by no means limited to inside the home. Wood-burning stoves can have an adverse impact on outdoor air quality in the surrounding area, and depending on the weather, wind can blow the dirty air to a different place completely. 

According to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), emissions of PM2.5 from domestic wood-burning more than doubled between 2003 and 2019, from 20,000 to 41,000 tonnes. 

In 2019, wood burning accounted for 38% of PM2.5 emitted, compared with 12% from road transport. Even in London, which has had smoke-controlled areas for more than 60 years, researchers at King’s College London found that wood burning was responsible for between 23% and 31% of all PM2.5 pollution.  

If the popularity of wood-burning stoves continues to grow, so too will their adverse impact on public health.

What is the Government doing about wood-burning stoves?

Sales of house coal and wet wood will be phased out in England from the 1st May this year in a bid to tackle air pollution. The restrictions, announced in February last year and originally due to enter force this February, are a victory for those who have campaigned tirelessly for regulations to be implemented. 

The Government has also developed a Clean Air Strategy which is due to come into force in 2022. This will outlaw the sale of the most polluting fuels and ensure only the cleanest stoves are sold, with all new wood burners having to meet new EcoDesign standards.

This is undoubtedly a step in the right direction as there is a clear emissions hierarchy when it comes to the fuels we burn and the stoves we use. However, there are concerns that these new rules could send out a contradictory message that these fuels and stoves are completely safe.

While aligning with the new Government guidelines can reduce pollution, even the best wood burners will still have an adverse impact on air quality. In their biomass report, the Air Quality Expert Group found that burning wood in an Ecodesign stove was similar to the emissions from six Euro V1 heavy good vehicles (HGVs).

The Government’s plans will certainly help to reduce PM2.5 emissions from wood-burning stoves, but they are not the only answer.

What more needs to be done?

There is a real need for clear communication to help raise awareness and highlight the air pollution impacts of wood-burning stoves. 

Research from Defra found that 68% of people who burned solid fuel indoors were in urban areas, meaning pollution from their fires may affect many other people. However, less than a third of them expressed any concern about the impacts burning might have on their health or that of those around them.

We need to ensure that the public is given a stark message that no level of PM2.5 is safe for us to breathe, and that using a wood-burning stove for purely aesthetic purposes can be extremely harmful not only to ourselves, but to the wider community.

Many consumers have also been led to believe that using a wood-burning stove is an environmentally-friendly option when it comes to heating their home. It is undoubtedly true that burning wood is relatively sustainable in comparison to fossil fuels like natural gas, propane, and coal. In fact, the Stove Industry Alliance (SIA) have gone so far as to say that burning wood is a ‘carbon neutral heating option’.

However, the situation is far from clear cut and measuring carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions remains incredibly difficult as you need to look at the entire life cycle of burning wood. Furthermore, air pollution cannot simply be equated with carbon emissions. When you consider the impact PM2.5 has on human health, it becomes very difficult to view wood-burning stoves as a truly clean or sustainable option.

The inconvenient truth about wood-burning stoves

There is no denying that wood-burning stoves look great and can be a comforting source of heat. However, we need to have a serious think about whether or not this short-term pleasure is worth the long-term damage to our health.

It is essential for us to increase awareness about the dangers of these stoves, while ensuring that nobody is left without an affordable alternative means of heating their home.

However stylish they may be, the impact of wood-burning stoves is incredibly sinister and we cannot afford to ignore this.