Health

Please help protect Australians from air pollution causing many unnecessary heart attacks, strokes, lung diseases and cancers.

Over 3000 Australians a year are estimated to die from heart attacks, strokes, lung diseases, cancers and other ill-health related to breathing fine particle (PM2.5) air pollution.[1] There is no safe level of PM2.5. A submission from Dr Ben Ewald to the Senate Inquiry showed that breathing PM2.5 pollution at the current “standard” of 25 ug/m3 is equivalent to smoking 3 cigarettes a day. Particulate air pollution is a group 1 human carcinogen.

The NSW Air Emissions Community Web tool (image, left) shows that more PM2.5, year round, in Sydney, comes from from residential wood heating than all other sources combined, despite only 4.3% of Sydney households using wood as the main form of heating. 

The Asthma Foundation warns that: wood smoke emissions in winter pose a bigger health danger in built up urban areas than cars or cigarettes.  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 UN Environment Program/World Meteorological Organisation recommended phasing out log-burning heaters in developed countries to reduce global warming as well as improve health.

A NSW Government consultancy report shows that residential wood combustion will cause health costs of $8 billion over 20 years - more than $22,000 for every wood heater in NSW.  The average brand-new wood heater emits about 20 kilograms of fine particles (PM2.5, the most health-hazardous air pollutant) per year - more than 1,000 passenger cars.  The estimated health cost of PM2.5 emissions is $280 per kg in Sydney, so the average new wood heater in Sydney increases  health costs by $5,600 per year.

Health costs are excessive because there is no effective Australian standard for wood heaters.  Standards Australia's protocols allow industry to veto proposed changes.  The most recent revision to the standard was set by a committee with no health nor epidemiological experts.  Emissions from a perfectly-operated heater under laboratory conditions (the current test) bear little or no relationship to real-life emissions.  A 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.

New standards for vehicles (set by the Federal Government) reduced PM2.5 emissions from diesel cars and SUV by more than 99%.  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.  The photos overleaf show the level of emissions from new heaters installed in Armidale, NSW.  All except one are known to satisfy the revised Australian “standard” that will apply until 2019.  As you can imagine, there are several examples of health problems when new wood heaters are installed by neighbours.

Our society has cracked down on passive smoking. It's now illegal for spectators to smoke at outdoor sports events. Yet a single wood heater chimney burning 10 kg wood (an evening's heat) emits about 100 grams of PM2.5, as much as in the smoke from 5,000 cigarettes, and has tumour potency of at least 50,000 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.

The health of children playing sports is affected by woodsmoke and increases the need for asthma medication:  “In July you get those hazy mornings, and the Ventolin takes the edge off the smoke.”

This problem is getting worse because people buying new wood heaters have no idea that the average brand-new wood heater emits more PM2.5 per year than 1,000 petrol cars.  They are misled, having been told that heaters meeting the current “Australian standard” must be clean and environmentally friendly.  Until people know the truth, there will be little public (or government) support for the measures needed to protect public health.

Please help increase awareness of this issue.  Public awareness could be dramatically increased by distributing information from health experts, such as by the 30 second videos produced by Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment and the San Francisco Government's 'Spare the Air' Campaign. Please consider publicising this information to the media and in public education campaigns.




1          Begg S, Vos T, Barker B, et al. The burden of disease and injury in Australia 2003, Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, Cat. no. PHE 82, Canberra (2007).  

Please join the NSW Chief medical officer, the Australian Lung Foundation and the NSW Asthma Foundation in formally supporting the 3 most cost effective measures in the NSW Wood Smoke Control Options Report, estimated to save at least $6 billion of the $8 billion health cost of woodsmoke in NSW: 1) not permitting new wood heaters to be installed until a health-based standard (set by a committee of independent health experts) has been developed; 2) removing wood heaters that do not satisfy the required standard when houses are sold and 3) a levy on wood heater use to fund education programs and assist neighbours whose health or lifestyle has been damaged by other people's woodsmoke pollution. 

Estimated health benefits and costs of woodsmoke control options in NSW

 

 

 

Health Benefit
$million

Cost $million

Net Benefit $million

4) Phase out at sale of house

$4,015

-$36

$3,978

2) Ban on heater sales

$2,206

-$134

$2,071

7) Licensing fees

 

$1,267

$11

$1,278

6) Sales tax on new wood heaters

$1,049

-$1

$1,048

9) Cash incentive phase out

$879

-$12

$867

8) Levying an excise/tax on biomass fuels

$419

$36

$455

5) Fuel moisture content regulations

$399

-$33

$366

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

$301

-$3

$298

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)

Please also participate in the NSW Government consultation (by 15 May 2015) - ask them to introduce State-wide policies, instead of passing the buck to local councils.  The NSW Government is consulting on some very weak proposals to pass the buck to local Councils about whether new wood heaters should be allowed.  This will be ineffective because, like the general public, local councils are not experts in the health effects of air pollution.  At the very least, with estimated $5,000 annual health costs of a new wood-heater installed in Sydney, new heaters should not be permitted unless the local council conducts a cost-benefit analysis of a new wood-heaters in the area.  There should also be an effective policy for assisting neighbours whose health or lifestyle is affected by other people's woodsmoke, and gradually phasing out existing heaters, e.g. when houses are sold. 

Comments from health experts such as yourselves  will go a long way towards reducing this significant source of air pollution and ill-health.  Details of the consultation process and links to all documents are available on the Australian Air Quality Group website. 

For more information, please see the attached peer-reviewed paper or click on the links in this document.

Dr Dorothy L Robinson,
pp Australian Air Quality Group

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