NSW Government asking Councils to decide whether new wood heaters should be permitted.

Health experts advise that current wood heater models too polluting to be allowed. NSW Chief Medical Officer Kerry Chant said wood heaters are so detrimental to health she supports banning and phasing them out in built-up urban areas. The NSW Asthma Foundation warned that: wood smoke emissions in winter pose a bigger health danger in built up urban areas than cars or cigarettes. Australian Lung Foundation spokesman Dr James Markos said wood fire heaters should be banned from urban areas. He said real-life emissions from new wood-heaters had little relationship to measurements from a perfectly operated test model under laboratory conditions. The UN Environment Program/World Meteorological Organization (UNEP/WMO) recommended phasing out log-burning heaters in developed countries to reduce global warming as well as improve health.

No safe level of PM2.5 pollution – 25 ug/m3 equivalent to smoking 3 cigarettes/day. Health authorities warn there is no safe level of PM2.5 pollution.  Medical doctor & epidemiologist at the University of Newcastle, Dr Ben Ewald, told the Senate Inquiry into air pollution and health that exposure at the current advisory limit of 25 ug/m3 has equivalent mortality risks to actively smoking 3 cigarettes a day.  The consultation on particle standards showed overwhelming support for a reduction to 20 ug/m3 PM2.5.

Pollution linked to heart attacks, strokes, cancers, lung diseases & affects babies and children at levels well below 25 ug/m3.  Armidale still has many days above the current limit of 25 ug/m3, even more above 20 ug/m3.  Few people in Armidale realise that the entire city often suffers air pollution levels worse than everyone smoking 3 cigarettes a day, or than in Canada, woodsmoke levels of 6 to 10 ug/m3 have been found to increase the risk of chronic obstructive pulmonary and increase adversely affect blood vessel health, indicating increased risk of heart disease.  There is limited awareness that, as well as increased risk of heart attacks, strokes, cancers and lung diseases, toxic chemicals in woodsmoke toxic chemicals in woodsmoke known as PAH have been linked to genetic damage in babies and reduced IQ when children start school.  Similar problems have been noted in developing countries, where children whose mothers cook with wood (as opposed to kerosene) have reduced IQ, memory and poorer social skills

1 day's heat = 120,000 cigarettes.  Wood smoke was found to cause 12 to 30 times as many tumours in mice and mutations in bacteria as the same amount of cigarette smoke.A single wood heater chimney burning 20 kg wood (a day's heat) emits about 200 grams of PM2.5, as much as in the smoke from 10,000 cigarettes,  with the tumour potency of at least 120,000 cigarettes.

Links to autism. Prof Frank Kelly, director of the environmental research group at King's College London, discussed the research linking PM2.5 pollution to autism: "I think if it was this study by itself I wouldn't take much notice, but it's now the fifth that has come to the same conclusion”.

Need health-based wood heater standard. It is now time to take account of the recommendations of health authorities such as the Chief Medical Officer, and the lack of a health-based standard for new wood heaters. Standards Australia's protocols allow industry to veto proposed changesA new emissions test was under development in 2007 until the wood heating industry vetoed recommendations approved by 15 votes to 4 by the previous Standards Australia committee to set an interim limit of 2 g/kg and require wood heaters to display warnings to alert users to the dangers of breathing woodsmoke.  Work on the new test was abandoned after the veto in 2007.  A new committee with no health nor epidemiological experts was formed in 2013 at the request of the wood heating industry.  Unsurprisingly (given the industry veto), the revision required only minimal changes - the emissions limit will be reduced to 2.5 g/kg from August 2015. 

The photos show emissions from brand new heaters in brand new houses in Armidale.  Some were noted to have emitted smoke continuously for over 10 hours.  All except the top left chimney are known to have ratings of less than 2.5 g/kg.  Reducing the limit on a test that does not measure real-life emissions does not appear to be effective.  In New Zealand, several small towns, e.g. Alexandra (pop 4824), Arrowtown (pop 2400), Clyde (pop 900), Cromwell (pop 4896) have virtually no other sources of air pollution apart from wood-heaters. These towns reduced the limit for new heaters to 0.7 g/kg and required those with AS4013 ratings over 1.5 g/kg to be removed by January 2012. Despite this, the four towns had respectively 42, 24, 7 and 29 exceedances of the 50 mg/m3 limit in 2012.

Education programs ineffective.  Launceston's $2.05 million education and wood-heater replacement program did not solve their problem of emissions from new heaters.  Real-life emissions from AS4103 heaters operated by motivated volunteers (observed in several cases to refuel the heater in the middle of the night, rather than leave it to smoulder) averaged 9.4 g/kg.  This suggests that the best that can be expected from a new heater burning 3 tonnes of wood per year is about 30 kg PM2.5, similar to annual PM2.5 emissions from 2,000 petrol cars each driving 15,000 km per year in the city.

Industry-set “standards” are meaningless.  Allowing the wood heating industry to set standards as effective as a "standard" for woodsmoke pollution set by the wood heating industry makes no more sense than allowing the tobacco companies to set policy on cigarettes.  New standards for vehicles (set by the Federal Government) reduced PM2.5 emissions from diesel cars and SUV by more than 99%Councils should therefore insist on a new wood heater standard, set by independent health experts, before any more heaters are installed. History shows that when new standards are set, industry soon develops less polluting models.

Risk of legal action.  In the absence of a health-based standard, if Council continues to allow the installation of new heaters, there is a risk of  legal action if residents suffer health damage from breathing woodsmoke.  As noted above, 5 studies have now linked PM2.5 pollution to autism, as well as a considerable number of studies linking PM2.5 to heart attacks, strokes, lung diseases and cancers, at levels well below 25 ug/m3, or even 20 ug/m3.   An Australian study has linked using a closed wood heater to childhood brain tumours; another found that wood stove use increased the risk of acute lymphoblastic leukaemia in childhood

UN Environment Program recommends phasing out log-burning heaters to reduce global warming. This option is best for health and, as the UN Environment Program/World Meteorological Organisation advises, also helps limit global warming to 2 degrees.  On low burn, enclosed wood heaters emit substantial quantities of methane, carbon monoxide and black carbon.  Over the critical period between now and when the 2 degree target is likely to be exceeded, the average house using wood heating is likely to cause about 10 times as much global warming one using an efficient electric heat pump. 

New houses have clean, cost-effective alternatives.  Thanks to State Government regulations, new houses must have insulation and thanks to Federal Government Minimum Energy Performance Standards (MEPS), the average new heat pump is about twice as efficient as 10 years ago.  Data provided by one manufacturer shows that even when the outdoor temperature is minus five degrees and the desired indoor temperature is 20 degrees, one of their units can deliver more than 4 kW of heat to the house while using only 1 kW of electricity.  At milder outdoor temperatures (e.g. 6 degrees), even less electricity is needed - the Coefficient of Performance increases to 4.6.

Putting health information in context.  People need to know the facts in order to make informed decisions.  Being told that woodsmoke is “harmful” or that wood heaters are “polluting” could simply mean that wood heaters pollute as much as cars, or that woodsmoke is no more harmful than passive smoking.  The evidence shown above implies that, even when people try to operate the average wood heater correctly, it still emits more PM2.5 (the most hazardous air pollutant) per year than 2,000 cars and that 25 ug/m3 of PM2.5 pollution in a city's air is equivalent to smoking 3 cigarettes a day.

People need to know the truth.  Nowhere in world has education programs or wood-heater change-outs enabled people to use log-burning heaters without creating harmful pollution.  The photos above of brand new heaters in new houses in Armidale shows that, even after being given all relevant information on correct operation, new heaters are adding considerable amounts of harmful pollution to an overloaded airshed.  When there is no safe level of pollution, authorities much strike a compromise between between the health damage suffered by the community from permitting health-hazardous air pollution and the economic benefits of allowing that pollution.  Vehicles and industry pollute, but the economic costs of not having vehicles or industry would be considerable.  In contrast, because there are affordable, environmentally-friendly alternatives, there is little benefit in allowing new heating that is so detrimental to health that the NSW chief medical officer says is detrimental to health she supports banning and phasing them out in built-up urban areas. T

Council should also help residents understand the health effects of woodsmoke, e.g. by comparing the health effects of woodsmoke with other pollution such as environmental tobacco smoke and car pollution.  The compilation of advertising material from other health authorities, in particular the 30 second videos by Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment and the San Francisco Bay Area 'Spare the Air' campaign, could help provide counter the biased information from the wood-heating industry, that, like the advertising from cigarette companies, is used to increase profits, even at the expense of public health.

Summary.  Council risks legal action if it continues to permit heaters that the NSW Chief Medical Officer says are so detrimental to health she supports banning and phasing them out in built-up urban areas. Council should also help residents understand the health effects of woodsmoke, e.g. by comparing the health effects of woodsmoke with other pollution such as environmental tobacco smoke and car pollution, e.g. by publicising the the 30 second videos by Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment and the San Francisco Bay Area 'Spare the Air' campaign.

The NSW Air Emissions Community Web tool (image, below) shows that residential wood heating is responsible for more PM2.5 emissions in Sydney that all other sources combined

 This is despite being used as the main form of heating by only 4.3% of households.
ABS data showing the main for of energy used for space heating for 2008, the year the most recent Emissions Inventory was compiled. 

Since then, the situation has become even worse!
Section 3.1, p7 of the cost benefit analysis reports that estimated wood heater sales could have been as high as 11,500 wood heaters in 2014.

Estimated health benefits and costs of woodsmoke control options in NSW




Health Benefit

Cost $million

Net Benefit $million

4) Phase out at sale of house




2) Ban on heater sales




7) Licensing fees





6) Sales tax on new wood heaters




9) Cash incentive phase out




8) Levying an excise/tax on biomass fuels




5) Fuel moisture content regulations




3) Emission standards (3g/kg, 60% efficiency)




Source:  Tables 26 and 28, AECOM Office of Environment & Heritage: EconomicAppraisal of Wood Smoke Control Measures[3]
An estimated 40,000 tonnes of PM2.5 are emitted from Australia's wood heaters (Federal Government CRIS), including 11,530 in NSW (OEH report, Table 17, p31) , with the health costs of woodsmoke in NSW estimated at $8.072 billion over 20 years if no remedial action is taken (Table 26, p46)