Experiences

Citizens for Environmental Health WebsiteWhy is wood smoke, a serious and deadly toxic carcinogenic neighbourhood pollutant, allowed?  Because people don’t know.


Wood Smoke Pollution: Neighbors Suffer Neighbors of wood-burning households frequently experience worsened health and a reduced quality of life. This page from the Doctors and Scientist against Wood Smoke Pollution website shares personal stories about how wood smoke has affected people's health and lifestyle.

Breathe Clean Air Comox Valley - Personal Stories  "I moved to Cumberland 12 years ago and the very first winter I noticed a deterioration in my respiratory health; it continued from year to year.
After about four years living here I started getting asthma, and each year it got worse. I have had pneumonia numerous times and coughed so badly once I gave myself a hernia which I had to have repaired. (I don’t ever remember living in a place where so many people of any age get pneumonia. I’ve never been troubled with it prior to moving here). 
.... if I had known what the air quality was actually like beforehand, I never would have moved here (none of the scientific data and information currently available was available at the time I moved here).


Wood Stove Smoke Is Killing Us.  Winter cold has set in, and smoke curls skyward from my neighbor's chimney. Once, I would have found that charming. No longer.
   Now I know that his smoke is making me sick. For starters, wood smoke causes heart disease, irregular heartbeat, lung cancer, and emphysema. I'm not alone in waking up to these hazards: Cities from Paris to Montreal to Tacoma are responding with restrictions aimed at wood-burning ...
   Each fall, the return of my childhood asthma coincides with the first smoke from my neighbor's chimney. I thought that shutting my windows might shield me. But studies show that more than half of the smallest particles in smoke find their way inside, despite sealed windows.

Court finds Wood Smoke  Hazardous to Health  Wood smoke from a neighbor’s stove can be more than just an annoyance. It can be a threat to health and to enjoyment of property. In February 2008, the Supreme Court of Ontario found that Brenda and David Deumo of Hamilton, Ontario had suffered harm “severe enough to deprive [them] of the ability to stay outdoors in their yard, or to go to the house and leave the windows open. It even caused them some disturbance when the windows were closed. It was a severe interference with the use and enjoyment of the property.” 
   The judge ordered $270,000 in damages and legal costs. He also continued an injunction forbidding their neighbors, the Fitzpatricks, from using a wood burning stove in their garage.

Senate Inquiry. Submissions reporting health effects of other people's woodsmoke
Tasmania
. "Our child has a serious and chronic asthma condition for which daily steroid medications are required to keep her alive. During winter, the condition is aggravated by the cold air and the increase in wood smoke and associated particulate matter. Constant wood smoke from neighbouring properties has a direct impact on our daughterʼs health (sub 90)."

 
Coastal NSW.
  "We have neither ice nor snow nor temperatures below freezing point at any time of year. I have lived here for more than sixty years, always enjoying good health.............until neighbours installed woodheaters    I have never smoked in my life yet have been diagnosed with a health issue which is smoke related (sub 123).
"

Rural Victoria.
  "Our family unit was at this time healthy, happy and fully involved in life and community. On moving into the Shire we discovered our life and health was about to be burdened with up to 9 months a year with dreadful acrid smoky air from the wood heaters and open air burning from homes in our suburb.Upon moving to the smoky environment, our daughter, aged 5, suddenly had breathing problems which she had never experienced before and was diagnosed with asthma (at a time when many children are growing out of asthma!) which has remained with her to the present day (sub39)."

Sydney
"We are an elderly couple, both with compromised lung function, and we are unfortunate enough to live next door to a newly installed wood burner that keeps us indoors in a sealed home for the whole winter"
(sub 119).

Melbourne
"If it is a still winter day, the smoke sits like a fog around our house.  I have two children, 5 years and 8 years. Both my children have developed asthma and one of my children (8 years) has had a number of respiratory problems which has resulted in five operations (grommets x 3, adenoids, tonsils). The poor night time breathing of our eldest child has been very concerning at times. It has involved countless doctors and specialist appointments and overnight monitoring of her breathing. She has three burst ear drums from repeat ear infections. The asthma has also restricted their participation in sport (sub 134).

Appeals to Local Councils & other efforts fail to solve the problems

Tasmania. "On a daily basis there is considerable visible smoke emitted from their chimney, which is clearly in breach of state regulations, yet penalties have never been applied because it is too hard to measure compliance and enforcement is historically non-existent" (sub 90).

Rural Victoria. "We have spent tens of thousands of dollars trying to deal with the issues, trying to seal doors and windows better (yet trapping the toxins inside our home when there is seldom a pollution-free timeslot to open any windows!), adding a whole-of-house ventilation system which has turned out to be ineffective while smoke can still seep through the tiniest cracks and crevices which are present even in a modern home."(sub39)

Melbourne.  "I asked if (Council’s) environmental officers could explain the health effects of wood smoke to my neighbours. The chief officer explained that this was not their role and that they were not instructed by the Victorian EPA to do this – instead their function was solely about correct operation of wood heaters. The council was not able to help any further, and unfortunately the chief environmental officer took offence at what he considered my criticism of their response, and became defensive and difficult. I stopped requesting their involvement. I got the impression that they would have marked this down as another ‘case solved’ in their reporting on the issue" (sub 134).

Armidale.  "My concern is that wood smoke pollution is a serious health problem that has not been sufficiently addressed to date. It affects me personally by exacerbating my asthma, even when I am indoors in my home which I seal to the best of my ability in an effort to keep wood smoke out" (sub 153).

Pittwater
.  1st family:    "After exhaustive attempts to try to remedy the situation and upon advice from GP’s and specialist medical practitioners I was finally forced to sell my home and move (see description, right had column)."
Pittwater.  2nd family: "We contacted the Pittwater Council requesting that they take action to require the neighbour to mitigate his wood smoke pollution and raise the height of his chimney. The staff seemed more concerned about the neighbour’s right to have a wood burner than our health. They declined to take any action."

Western Australia. "Obviously these guidelines don't work in our instance and neither my Council or neighbour are prepared to go any further to ease this situation" (description, right hand column).

Woodsmoke Experiences:  ACT Discussion Paper: Addressing Wood Heater Pollution 
   "I am 73 years old and suffer from C.O.P.D. (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease). I am on home oxygen for approximately 16-18 hours a day. I lead as full a life as possible in order to remain connected to the community and it is important given my lung condition that I remain as active as possible in order to keep my lungs functioning to a level that will make my life liveable and maintain my independence.
   "However, many of the activities I enjoy in summer are curtailed in winter, which in turn has an adverse effect on my health. Due to the pollution during winter and in particular, wood smoke, my breathing difficulties are exacerbated. There are a number of homes using wood heating in my area, which means that I can’t leave windows open in my house because smoke, even if I can’t see it, is evident by my limited breathing capacity. Therefore I need to use more oxygen, via an oxygen concentrator, in order to breathe. This increased dependence on oxygen limits the time I can be away from home, and seriously limits my social contacts.... To quote the Lung Foundation; “When you can’t breathe, nothing else matters”. Tuggeranong resident

   “As a child and teenager I had sarcoidosis of the lungs leading to other long-term health issues best dealt with by healthy living. As often as possible I like to exercise in fresh-air. In the mid 1970’s I moved to the Tuggeranong Valley with its mountain views and clean air. Now, under certain atmospheric conditions, the smell of wood smoke is acrid. During the wood smoke season I experience coarse irritation and burning sensations in the upper respiratory tract, sinus and eyes. This noticeably disrupts my social activities, reading and work. The sooty particles also deposit on the roof and bonnet of my car. Campbell resident
   “Our members are particularly affected by air pollution in the cooler months. The smell of wood smoke makes it hard to breathe, and limits the time our members can be outside and the activities they can be involved in. When their breathing is affected by smoke, it can be hard for them to look after their active young children or grand children.
   "In most cases in our group, people affected by wood smoke have modified their lives, sealed their houses as well as they can, and limited the activities they do. But that shouldn't have to happen.
   "It is a worry to us that wood smoke affects the lungs so that they are not working as effectively. We also know that each time we are affected - and maybe even hospitalised - our lung function decreases. We already have breathing difficulties and do not want to exacerbate it.” Statement from the Canberra Lung Life Support Group

   “Particle pollution from all sources, and especially from wood smoke, is harmful to our lungs.... Over many years, exposure has similar long-term consequences to environmental tobacco smoke, including the risk of lung cancer and heart disease.” – Dr James Markos, Australian Lung Foundation

   “Smoke from wood fires can have a significant health impact particularly in people with pre-existing lung conditions. Pollution adversely affects asthmatics, particularly children, and it also has a significant impact on people with Emphysema and Chronic Bronchitis (COPD).
   "This effect on COPD was very well shown in Launceston and reducing the number of wood fires there has been of significant benefit. It would be good if we could do the same in the ACT
Dr Mark Hurwitz, Clinical Associate Professor and Director of Respiratory and Sleep Medicine at The Canberra Hospital

   “Wood smoke contains particulate matter and gaseous pollutants such as carbon monoxide and oxides of nitrogen which adversely affect respiratory health.
  " Wood smoke exposure can cause acute exacerbations in people with asthma and Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease.   Further, wood smoke exposure can initiate cough and chronic bronchitis and also may affect the normal lung development in children.
   "Minimizing wood smoke exposure for Australian communities will have a positive impact on current & future health of those communities.” Professor Richard Ruffin AM, Emeritus Professor of Medicine, University of Adelaide

   “Smoke from wood heaters … is a real and significant health hazard…[we] recommend using alternative methods for climate control.” The Australian Lung Foundation

   “Exposure to wood smoke can cause significant breathing problems for people with asthma. We support working with the community to minimise exposure to wood smoke to help people breathe better.
Debra Kay, CEO Asthma Australia
Instead of trying to provide assistance to people whose health as been affected by woodsmoke, the AHHA broke the political funding laws by spending $60,776.78 campaigning against the Greens at the ACT election.

 “Example of Armidale residents who did not know that woodsmoke was affecting their children's health until they moved house."
   We lived for fifteen years in Allingham St, between Brown and Mann. From two years of age my daughter suffered respiratory illness every year. It started in early May each year approximately two weeks after wood fires were lit, and continued until the end of winter when the fires stopped.  This occurred until my daughter was twelve years old, which is when we moved to a house above the smoke line on South hill. Since then she has not suffered from the same respiratory illness. It just stopped! We did not have to go to the Doctor or buy any more medication .During the same time my son suffered from a persistant cough during winters, this also stopped when we moved house. Note our Allingham  St house was heated by a wood fire our new house is not. Otherwise nothing changed We have always had a good diet and our children participated in several sports. The only thing that changed was our moving out of a house that had a wood heater in an area that was in a heavy smoke zone into a non wood heated house out of the smoke zone.
   Note our decision to move house was not driven to get out of the  smoke, but we were surprised in the dramatic change in our children’s health when we did.  (Submission on Armidale's Air Quality Policy, April 2010)

Experiences and a wood smoke success story from the US


A Victim of Woodsmoke Pollution. Energy Justice Network.  May 2014.  In 2000, we bought a home to enjoy our retirement in. It was perfect for us! Little did we know that, in 2002, our lives would be changed dramatically! Beginning in 2002, our home became surrounded and infiltrated by wood smoke from our neighbour.  ...
We were fortunate enough to have the means to seek legal help. Remember that there was no provincial or municipal authority which we could turn to for help. In the end, the burning was ended permanently and he or anyone else that ever owns that property can never burn again.
What does it feel like to be vulnerable to air pollution? Let me tell you my story…  Like most of us, I love the ambiance created by a fireplace or wood stove, but the EPA estimates that a single fireplace operating for an hour and burning 10 pounds of wood will generate 4,300 times more of certain carcinogens than 30 cigarettes. None of us want to send a kid — or a pregnant woman!
September 2015.  Study of the health effects of using wood stoves.  Families living near Missoula, US, with woodstoves and young children asked to help out with air quality study This study will test different exposure reduction strategies in households that use wood stoves for home heating and evaluate the impact on respiratory function.

The choking side of wood burning P. Vogan's letter to the Cowichan Valley Citizen, March 2017.  
   "I look out over the smoky haze in my neighbourhood as I gasp for breath, wheezing and coughing and feeling like I am drowning. Eventually my heart is pounding so hard I head for the emergency department. While I am waiting to be seen a mother brings in a child in obvious respiratory distress. When I am seen by the emergency room doctor he gives me a prescription for an inhaler. I get the prescription filled; it costs over $100. It is now evening. While I spent the day at the hospital my neighbours have been happily saving a few bucks burning unseasoned wood they picked up on the side of the road. One neighbour is even burning landscaping wood chips — hey they are even cheaper than wood. The smoke is still billowing from his chimney as the cool fog settles in and holds this toxic mix at ground level.
   "The cost: thousands of dollars of taxpayer money towards the cost of health care, thousands of dollars in prescriptions, the cost of watching as your child or loved one drowns in their own mucous.
    "Why: so you can save a few bucks on your Hydro bill or not have to go to the dump with your refuse.
    "Hardly seems fair to me, but hey, this is the Cowichan Valley, where your child is 75 per cent more likely to get asthma and burning wood is your right." 

Lisa Neville: Please Help Stop Wood-smoke Impacting on My Already Inflamed Airways
July 2015 blog by Michellina van Loder, Professional Writer, Author, Journalist, Blogger  
"Each winter, my health is impacted on by my neighbours’ wood-smoke from their wood heaters. Not only does the woodsmoke make me ill for days at a time but it also makes my life and that of my family’s difficult: we have to seal our windows with masking tape to keep the smoke out; we can’t run the exhausts fans in the bathroom unless someone outside the bathroom can tape up and seal cracks around the door due to the backdraft of woodsmoke that comes in; some nights, I have to sleep with a 3M filter mask over my face to protect my airways; we can’t leave our washing outside, nor can we go outside for long—most days, I can’t go outside at all—because the wood-smoke particles permeate into our hair and clothing, effecting my airways when we come in  .... "

Residents of a coastal city, north of Sydney complained repeatedly to the local Council for many years regarding neighbours who continually bathe them with their dangerous and putrid wood smoke. These offending chimneys are located very close and downhill to their home. To date they have received no satisfactory outcome in relation to our many complaints.
   One member of the family suffers from a chronic lung disease (she has never smoked) and this putrid smoke definitely impacts upon the entire family and exacerbates the poor health and limited lung function of the lady with lung disease. Her symptoms are that of cystic fibrosis and any allergic reactions be it smoke or dust that can irritate the lungs are known to create additional inflammation resulting in increased sputum production. This affects breathing and makes airway clearance extremely difficult and she continually suffers with the most deliberating uncontrollable bouts of coughing lasting for up to hours at a time. She is on a nebulizer several times a day plus postural drainage to help clear lungs.  She has been admitted to hospital with breathing difficulties and chronic lung infections during the winter and her symptoms were most certainly aggravated as a result of been exposed to our neighbours wood smoke.
   When smoke is billowing out from these neighbours' chimneys their wood smoke often joins up into one big putrid cloud of smoke - especially when the wind is blowing in our direction. The garage and laundry are a no-go zone with the smell of smoke.  When inhaled this sickening stench takes your breath away. They've frequently had to remove wet washing off our clothesline.
   The Council made token contact and visits to these neighbours' homes over the years and instructed them in the correct management - so to speak - of their wood heaters. Council appears to lack, the necessary compassion, training and experience in investigating and understanding the very serious health impacts associated with wood smoke complaints. There seems to be more emphasis from the Council on the rights of the wood heater owner and not enough education about the health risks to them and their neighbours as well as any encouragement to switch to a cleaner and safer heating option.
   All that appears to have been achieved by complaining is getting the Council and our neighbours offside - which was in no way the intention. The family feels defenseless and ostracized with no support.  They are at their wits end with this extremely upsetting situation, which is now taking a toll on our entire family. Obviously this situation has upset them very much and understandably they are now too fearful to make any more complaints to Council regarding these very serious health concerns. They just don't know what to do - the Council don't seem to be able to do anything.  They don't want to cause any more upset, just want to be able to breathe fresh air in their own home.


Western Australia.  For the past 2.5 months there has been constant smoke emitted for about 6 hours + a day.  It often pours out at 4am as they leave the fire to burn out. Resident, who is new to the area, is told that the neighbour burns wood approx. 8 months of the year. He has tried to oblige by extending his chimney. 
"My son and I live with windows and doors shut, washing drying inside on sunny days and an air purifier operating inside. I have had two chest infections this winter to date with my son wheezing. I can't remember the last time I had a chest infection.
"I contacted the local council health inspector (department responsible for WA residential) who came and inspected and reported my neighbour is doing all that is required. He will not visit out of business hours to watch the smoke in the evening nor will my neighbour come over and see and smell what we experience. These "guidelines" may be general but how are the individual design of homes in proximity to each other with individual wind patterns get taken into consideration with these guidelines. Obviously these guidelines don't work in our instance and neither my Council or neighbour are prepared to go any further to ease this situation. My neighbour cites he has done all he can and there is no law to stop him."

Residents of Pittwater, Sydney, forced to move home because of wood heaters installed in 2008
    "In the winter of 2008 subsequent to significant rises in the cost of electricity we began to regularly experience strong blasts of wood smoke from various directions around us followed by ongoing infusion of smoke into our home which would last all night and often into the next day.  We took every measure possible to try to prevent the infiltration of smoke into our home including taping doors and windows, putting up draft stoppers in the ceiling, purchasing air purifiers, even taping down lights to try to seal out the pollution.
    "Unfortunately it was all in vain.  After numerous calls to our local 
Pittwater Council who seemed to think that the wood burners were in fact the victims and not us, and myriad calls to the EPA, now OEH, we eventually contacted our local newspaper who printed various articles and letters on our behalf in an attempt to raise the public’s awareness on the health impacts of burning wood.  The effects of being subjected to ongoing wood smoke infiltration into our home meant that we frequently experienced sore itchy eyes, sore throats, at times respiratory distress, and nausea and fatigue.  In addition our home and our belongings often smelled of smoke and we experienced deposits of black soot throughout the home. 
    "After exhaustive attempts to try to remedy the situation and upon advice from GP’s and specialist medical practitioners I was finally forced to sell my home and move.  It is incomprehensible to us that a wood burner has greater rights to burn wood and pollute than we have to breathe clean air and to live safely and comfortably in our own home."


WHAT TWO OTHER PITTWATER RESIDENTS DID TO COMBAT  WOOD SMOKE POLLUTION INVADING THEIR HOME 

 Our next door neighbour installed a new and approved wood burning heater in 2010. His house is single story and the flue for the new heater barely rises above his eaves, sitting below his own ridge line and well below our upstairs bedroom window. The smoke from this flue immediately entered most rooms of our old, renovated house.

My wife’s asthma was triggered by the smoke and last winter she developed bronchitis and needed multiple treatments with antibiotics.

We had to act. Listed below is what we have done, so far: 

  1. Turned off our own externally flued gas heater This was drawing in outside air to sustain combustion. (about 6m3 of air per hour when running at 26Mj). The smoke was entrained in this air. This action significantly reduced the quantity of smoke entering our rooms, particularly on those very cold, still nights when it would hang around near ground level enveloping ours and nearby houses. 
  1. Applied Moroday Multi-Seal Dust Exclusion Tape around all swing doors and hopper windows. This reduced the amount of wind driven smoke entering through gaps around these openings, but failed to seal the gaps around our casement windows, French doors and double swing front door. 
  1. Sealed closed with masking tape those doors and windows that wouldn’t seal with the Moroday tape. 
  1. Installed Reverse Cycle, Split System, Inverter Controlled Air Conditioning in the main bedroom, study and living area. Three separate units of 3, 5, and 7KW of heating easily replaced the gas heater, and, our Panasonics actually seem to deodorise any smoke still entering. (Not sure if they actually remove the PM2.5s) Due to their flexibility these may be cheaper to operate than the gas fire if we are careful to switch them off in vacant rooms. 
  1. Fitted Expol Underfloor Insulation to prevent outside air and smoke entering our living room area through the cracks between the boards of our polished floors, downstairs. This product was relatively easy to fit and it seems to work. It has the added advantage of reducing the heating requirements. 

The approximate costs of these measures were.
Air conditioning supply and install:                                    $7,100
Sealers                                                                           $    80
Underfloor insulation –self installed                                  $   420

 We only took these steps after exploring all of the negotiating and regulatory avenues we could find.

  • We approached the neighbour. He was not interested in our problems with his pollution.
  • We contacted the NSW Office of Environment and Heritage (previously DECCW). They referred us to Pittwater Council as the local consent authority and sent us some useful literature but confirmed that they have no power to take action against domestic wood smoke polluters.
  • We contacted the Pittwater Council requesting that they take action to require the neighbour to mitigate his wood smoke pollution and raise the height of his chimney. The staff seemed more concerned about the neighbour’s right to have a wood burner than our health. They declined to take any action.    
  •  We again contacted Council and the Mayor citing continued concerns about the affects of the smoke on my wife’s health .They invited us to take photos and referred us to the NSW Protection of the Environment and Operations Act 1997, Div 3, Clause 135. “Definition of Excessive Smoke” which states “excessive smoke  means the emission of a visible plume of smoke for a period of not less than 10 minutes, including a period of not les than 30 seconds when the plume extends at least 10metres from the point at which the smoke is emitted from the chimney”. Council ignored the fact that it is very difficult to take photos of smoke at night and in any case most modern wood heaters emit very little visible smoke - just lots of the toxic PM2.5 particulates.
  • We referred Council’s failure to enforce a section of its own DCP to the Ombudsman. He followed up but relied on “Council’s View” of the case. Amazing!
  • We contacted our local MP and the Ministers for Environment and Health. The MP was helpful but no result.
  • We even contacted the neighbour again and offered to pay for his chimney to be raised. He declined.

 We are now pleased that we took the actions outlined above, even though it has cost us much more than we wished to spend. We still get some smoke inside on very windy nights and during periods of high pollution but it is greatly reduced. However, we would dearly love to again turn on our gas log fire, be able to open a bedroom window at night, enter through our front door and to tend our garden during the winter.

 We intend to continue lobbying the authorities, at all levels, to ban the installation new wood burning heaters in urban areas and to work towards phasing out existing ones.

 PLEASE REMEMBER YOUR LOCAL COUNCIL IN NSW HAS THE POWER TO REGULATE WOOD SMOKE POLLUTERS BY ISSUING SMOKE ABATEMENT ORDERS OR EVEN CESSATION ORDERS. WE HOPE YOURS WILL BE MORE ENLIGHTENED AND CONCERNED ABOUT COMMUNITY HEALTH THAN OURS.

 Residents of Pittwater Local Government Area, NSW

One comment on the debate about wood stoves in Parksville, Canada, says: "I began to notice the smoke-filled neighbourhood. Costs were rising and my old bad back sent a "find another way" message. 
"For about $3,000 a heat pump was installed that easily warmed the area the wood stove once heated. And the cost is only about $10-$15 per month over previous hydro bills. So I figure to save about $600+ per year over firewood. Plus it's debris and dust free, very quiet and needs no chimney cleaning."  
As reported on the NSW EPA website, the updated Australian/New Zealand standards (published in August 2014) introduce a staged approach to setting particle emission and thermal efficiency limits for wood heaters:
  • a 55% efficiency limit and 2.5 grams of particle emission per kilogram of fuel burnt (g/kg) within 12 months of the publishing of the standards
  • a 60% efficiency limit and 1.5 g/kg for non-catalytic heaters (0.8 g/kg for catalytic heaters) within five years of publishing.
    The NSW EPA
  •    These limits are totally inadequate, given estimates in NSW EPA woodsmoke control options report that a heater rated 2.5 g/kg will have real-life emissions of 8.2 g/kg and one rated 1.5 g/kg has expected real-life emissions of 7 g/kg.  
       A heater burning Sydney's average of about 2 tonnes per year and satisfying the "standard" listed above of lab-test emissions of 2.5 g/kg (and expected real-life emissions of 16.4 kg PM2.5 per year) will have expected health costs of $4,307 per year (using the estimate of $263 per kg of PM2.5 emissions in the Federal Government's wood heater Consultation Regulation Impact Statement, CRIS).

Port Coquitlam, Metro Vancouver, Canada. Homeowner says emissions from a neighbourhood chimney are making him sick. Jan 2013

Wood-burning heating devices could pose serious health risks  "Their next-door neighbors used to heat their home with wood throughout the entire winter, and the constant smoke that traveled to the O'Link's home all those years became a nuisance. 
That nuisance may be the primary factor behind Jamie's health problems. 
Earlier this year during her annual physical, her doctor had some bad news. "She basically told me I have chronic obstructive pulmonary disease," Jaime said. Her doctor told her that it was more commonly known as emphysema, and that Jamie had to stop smoking. "But I don't smoke," Jaime told her doctor.
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