Senate Inquiry

Senate Inquiry:  Impacts on health of air quality in Australia

Senate Committee: Comments on Woodsmoke
6.40: "The committee was disturbed by the disproportionate contribution made by wood smoke to urban air pollution, given the relatively small number of households using it as a heating source."
“the additional health costs attributable to the impact of wood smoke by 2030 could be up to $8 billion in NSW alone.”

"In Sydney, improving wood heater pollution standards to 1g/kg would represent 1% of the cost of meeting the air quality targets of the NEPM, while representing 66%of the necessary abatement in PM10 levels." p58)

Senate Committee: Recommendations
6.43 The committee recommends that Australian Governments immediately adopt minimum efficiency and maximum emission standards for all newly installed wood heaters in Australia.
6.44 The committee recommends that local councils continue to manage the use of wood heaters in their own jurisdictions through the use of bans, buy-backs, minimum efficiency standards, and other mechanisms as appropriate to protect the health of their local communities

: immediate implementation of 1 g/kg was said to be cost-effective and achieve 66% of air quality ‘targets’ for 1% of the cost. Unfortunately, the current wood heater test does not measure real-life emissions, so a better option is to replace wood-heaters with affordable, non-polluting heating such as an efficient 7-start heater-air-conditioner that can deliver 6 times as much heat to the home as it uses in electricity, and 5 times as much when the outside temperature is 5 degrees below freezing.  
There is no safe level of PM2.5 pollution - most health damage occurs when PM2.5 measurements are below the ‘target’.  A 1 gkg heater has estimated health costs of over $5,000 per year in Sydney (Table 1, below right). The most important strategies are therefore to develop of new tests to measure real-life emissions, and discourage wood heater use until new health-based standards based on the new tests are available.  Wood heater PM2.5 emissions are disproportionate and excessive because local councils have neither the expertise nor resources to manage this major source of pollution.

/Wood heating industry's peak industry body, the AHHA, told untruthsThe AHHA's claims that the failure to strengthen national woodheater standards was because of a "Standards Australia reshuffle" were found to be untrue.  The Inquiry confirmed (para 6.35, p 63) that the failure "was the result of a failure of the technical committee to reach consensus within the meaning of Standards Australia's rules, which according to the minutes supplied to the committee was a result of opposition from industry representatives."

Important Issues from the Senate Committee Report
1) Immediate introduction of National Woodheater standards should mean what it says:

6.43 The committee recommends that Australian Governments immediately adopt minimum efficiency and maximum emission standards for all newly installed wood heaters in Australia.

6.13: "In Sydney, improving wood heater pollution standards to 1g/kg would represent 1% of the cost of meeting the air quality targets of the NEPM, while representing 66%of the necessary abatement in PM10 levels
." p58
Given the obvious benefits of limiting emissions to 1 g/kg, this limit should be introduced nationally before 2014.  In addition, because heaters rated 1 g/kg are estimated to have real-life emissions of 6.4 g/kg, there should be an immediate a cost-benefit analysis comparing the costs of woodsmoke pollution from a new heater compared with the benefits of using that heater.  Wood heater use should not be permitted in areas where pollution costs exceed the benefits of using wood heaters.

2) Pollution measurements need to be available for all highly polluted areas
Many areas with high woodsmoke, e.g. Armidale, NSW rely on measurements funded by the local council, which lacks the necessary expertise to make them available to the public, let alone in real time over the web.  Funding and expertise should be made available to ensure that pollution is measured in all areas where national air quality standards are likely to be exceeded, and that all past and current results are made available on the web for comparison with measurements elsewhere. 

3) Funding needed to develop and implement a National Woodheater standard based on real-life emissions
A “standard” that does not reflect real-life emissions is of very little use in protecting our health. It is dangerous to give people a false sense of security by suggesting that a product that produces harmful emissions is safe.  Under the precautionary principle, such products would not be allowed.  Immediate research is therefore required to 

4) Funding needed develop & implement a National Woodsmoke Reduction program, including responding to complaints from people whose health is affected by woodsmoke
6.44 The committee recommends that local councils continue to manage the use of wood heaters in their own jurisdictions through the use of bans, buy-backs, minimum efficiency standards, and other mechanisms as appropriate to protect the health of their local communities.

Current pollution measurements demonstrate that local councils have neither the funds nor the expertise to manage air pollution and that national or state-wide programs would be much more effective.  For example, despite continued attempts to reduce air pollution since 1999, PM2.5 measurements in Armidale, NSW are now worse than in 1999.  Emissions from one part of Sydney disperse and affect the air quality of the entire city. 

A national program would be able to manage resources for education on the health effects of woodsmoke, including average PM2.5 emissions from a new wood heater compared with other sources of emissions, improving insulation to reduce heating bills, provide a 24-hr hotline to help people who are affected by woodsmoke and solve problems created when one person’s woodsmoke affects the health or lifestyle of neighbours, provide funds to replace wood heaters with alternatives, and (in conjunction with the BOM) ‘don’t light tonight’ to encourage people to use non-polluting heating  These programs should have sufficient funds to enable all communities to meet all NEPM air quality standards as soon as possible.

5) Penalties for untrue claims likely to affect public health.  The Senate Inquiry also confirmed the failure to strengthen national woodheater standards "was the result of a failure of the technical committee to reach consensus within the meaning of Standards Australia's rules, which according to the minutes supplied to the committee was a result of opposition from industry representatives" (para 6.35, p63).  Like many other claims made by the AHHA, this claim to the Senate Inquiry was found to be untrue. 
Making false claims about health-hazardous air pollution emissions is likely to affect public health.  Appropriate penalties are required to protect our health from unscrupulous claims by organisations who profit from selling wood heaters.

6) Correct the inaccuracies in the National Pollutant Inventory. The inaccuracies, known since 2008, in the National Pollutant Inventory (NPI) which under-estimates particle emissions from woodheaters by about 50% should be fixed immediately. Other major inaccuracies in the NPI (e.g. the lack of accurate data for PM2.5 and for toxic chemicals such as ethylbenzene) should be fixed at the same time and new protocols developed to ensure that major errors in the NPI are fixed in a timely manner.

Major health benefits from reducing woodsmoke
   When the number of households using wood-burning stoves in Launceston fell from 66% to 30%, wintertime particulate pollution fell by 40%.  Deaths from cardiovascular diseases in winter fell by 20% and respiratory deaths by 28%.  On a year-round basis, male mortality fell by 11.4 per cent, with reductions of 17.9% in total cardiovascular deaths and 22.8% in respiratory deaths[8, 9].  These benefits are so large and significant that very few people would consider wood heaters worth the large increase in early deaths from heart and lung diseases.
   The toxic PAH pollution in woodsmoke has also been linked to genetic damage in babies, reduced IQ as well as behavioural problems such as anxiety and attention problems when children start school –
   Two Canadian studies reported serious health effects of woodsmoke at 10 ug/m3 PM2.5
[10, 11] – less than half the current Australian advisory standard of 25 ug/m3.  Another Canadian study with median PM2.5 concentrations of 7.3 ug/m3 showed an increase of 3 ug/m3 was associated with a 9% increase in deaths from ischemic heart disease and 3-4.5% increases in all deaths.[12]  In Quebec, woodsmoke accounts for 61% of fine particle emissions.[13]
   In Armidale, NSW, woodsmoke concentrations were noted to increase 4-fold within 40 metres, indicating that even individual wood heaters can cause serious health problems for neighbours.

 Real-life emissions from a new wood heater in a new house in Armidale (AS4013 test rating < 2.5 g/kg).
     Armidale's policy required all heaters installed in new houses to have emissions ratings < 2.5 g/kg. The level of emissions shown in the photo (left) has been observed on many occasions for a considerable period of time from the heater installed in this new house.


1.             Cohen, D.D., et al., Fine particle characterisation, Source Apportionment and Long Range Dust Transport into the Sydney Basin: A long term study between 1998 and 2009. Atmospheric Pollution Research, 2011. 2: p. 182-189

2.             WHO, Review of evidence on health aspects of air pollution – REVIHAAP.  Available at 2013.

3.             ABS, 4602055001DO001_201103 Environmental Issues: Energy Use and Conservation, Mar 2011. 2011.

4.             NSW OEH, Economic Appraisal of Wood Smoke Control Measures. 2011, AECOM Australia Pty Ltd. Prepared for the Office of Environment and Heritage.  Available at:

5.             ALA. American Lung Association Cautions Against Wood-burning and Urges Cleaner Alternatives for Winter Heat.  2008  [cited.

6.             Wright, M., Why I have six air conditioners, in Climate Spectator. (accessed 13 March 2012). 2011.

7.             Morgan, G., Daily mortality and air pollution in Sydney, in Proceedings of the Health & Urban Air Quality in NSW Conference. 1996, NSW Health Department: Sydney.

8.             The Australian, Switch out of wood-burning stoves saves lives. 9 January 2013.

9.             Johnston, F.H., et al., Evaluation of interventions to reduce air pollution from biomass smoke on mortality in Launceston, Australia: retrospective analysis of daily mortality, 1994-2007. BMJ: British Medical Journal, 2013. 346.

10.           Allen, R.W., et al., An Air Filter Intervention Study of Endothelial Function among Healthy Adults in a Woodsmoke-impacted Community. Am. J. Respir. Crit. Care Med., 2011. 183(9): p. 1222-1230.

11.           Gan, W.Q., et al., Associations of Ambient Air Pollution with Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease Hospitalization and Mortality. American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine, 2013. 187(7): p. 721-727.

12.           Crouse, D.L., et al., Risk of Non-accidental and Cardiovascular Mortality in Relation to Long-term Exposure to Low Concentrations of Fine Particulate Matter: A Canadian National-level Cohort Study. Environ Health Perspect, 2012.

13.           Lung Association of Quebec, Wood heating: a public health issue for the Montréal region. 2009.

14.           Robinson, D.L., J.M. Monro, and E.A. Campbell, Spatial variability and population exposure to PM2.5 pollution from woodsmoke in a New South Wales country town. Atmospheric Environment, 2007. 41: p. 5464–5478.

Lawnmowers and other diesel engines
Chapter 5 of the Senate Inquiry: Impacts on health of air quality in Australia discussed diesel and non-road engines, noting

5.1 The impacts of diesel and two-stroke engine emissions on health were a key concern raised throughout this inquiry.

Marine engines, recreational diesel engines and appliances
5.23 Diesel engines are widely used in recreational engines, small power generators, and domestic appliances such as lawn mowers. These engines are not subject to any standards and emit a disproportionately large quantity of emissions compared to their size. For example, despite their small size, a lack of emissions standards means that an Australian lawnmower may emit up to 40 times the pollution of a small car per hour.

Senate Inquiry Recommendations - Diesel Engines
Recommendations  10 and 11
5.31 The committee recommends that the Commonwealth develop a national emissions standard for diesel engines.
5.32 The committee recommends that the Commonwealth implement a national emissions standard for small non-road engines equivalent to the US EPA standards.
Immediate action needed because there’s no safe level of PM2.5 pollution
PM2.5 (tiny particles less than 2.5 microns) are so small they behave like gases and infiltrate homes even when all doors and windows are shut.  They penetrate the deepest recesses of our lungs and are considered the most health-hazardous air pollutant, responsible for 10 to 20 times as many premature deaths as the next worst pollutant, ozone. There is no safe level of PM2.5 pollution. The World Health Organisation notes that “In the absence of a threshold … health benefits will result from any reduction of PM2.5 concentrations, whether or not the current levels are above or below the limit values.

Immediate action needed because woodsmoke is the major source of PM2.5, even in Sydney’s mild climate where only 5% of households use wood as the main heating

The NSW EPA graph shown above clearly show that, even in Sydney’s mild climate, where only about 5% of households use wood as the main form of heating in 2011, residential wood heaters are responsible for the lion’s share of emissions of the most health-hazardous air pollutant, PM2.5. 
The proportion of emissions from wood heaters is confirmed by ANSTO's analysis of particles collected on filters at Mayfield, Liverpool from 1998-2009. 

Consistent with the NSW EPA estimates of emissions, PM2.5 pollution is generally higher in winter, when a large proportion of wintertime particles came from burning wood.[1]

Sydneys particulate pollution responsible for up to 1,400 premature deaths per year In 2006, press reports of a study into the health effects of particulate pollution noted that that Sydney'spolluted air contributes to the deaths of up to 1,400 people a year. One report from this study confirmed that "both particulates and deaths are higher in winter[7]. 

Woodsmoke – an $8 billion health problem in NSW – thousands of dollars per heater per year
The NSW’s Economic analysis concluded that the 11,530 tonnes woodsmoke emitted in NSW per year is an $8 billion health problem.[4] 
Assuming similar costs in other states, the Federal Government’s estimates of 40,000 tonnes of PM2.5 emitted nationally from domestic wood heaters  represents a $27 billion health problem.  More importantly, as shown in the table below, because the current AS4013 test does not reflect real-life emissions, a heater rated 4 g/kg is expected to have real-life emissions of 9.8 g/kg and estimated health costs of more than $8,000 per year in Sydney; one rated 1.0 g/kg has estimated health costs of $5,773 in Sydney – see Table 1 below.  It’s no wonder the Australian Lung Foundation and the American Lung Association (ALA) both recommend not using wood heaters when alternatives, with the ALA adding: “Converting a wood-burning fireplace or stove to use either natural gas or propane will eliminate exposure to the dangerous toxins wood burning generates including dioxin, arsenic and formaldehyde

Because of the serious effects on health, the Federal Governments proposals in its Consultation Regulation Impact Statement (released April 2013) to reduce woodsmoke PM2.5 emissions by only about 10% over 20 years are totally inadequate.  New proposals are therefore needed to meet the Government’s duty and responsibility to use all cost-effective measures to protect the public from this major, unnecessary health-hazard created by a small proportion of households.

Table 1. Estimated annual cost of heating per household (selected locations) and estimated health costs compared to the cost of alternative heating (an efficient reverse cycle heat pump).


 Firewood Price ($/tonne)a

Wood use tonnesa

Annual wood heating costa

Annual health costs New wood heaterb

Annual cost: whole-house heating with efficient heat pumpc









$500 - $700







$150 - $300







$300 - $600







$150 - $300







$150 - $300

aPrice, wood use and annual wood heating costs from Table 2.2 of the woodheater consultation RIS (CRIS)  bAnnual Health costs based on CRIS Table 3.2  $263,000 per tonne in capital cities and $113,000 per tonne in Wagga. Real-life emissions calculated from Table 18, of the NSW OEH economic appraisal of wood heater control options. A: wood heaters rated < 4 g/kg have real life emissions = 9.8 g/kg;  B: heaters rated < 1 g/kg have real life emissions = 6.4 g/kg).[4]  cEfficient heat pumps in Sydney, Melbourne and Perth can deliver at 10 units of heat to a home for every unit of electricity used.[6]

Even mining towns are affected by woodsmoke
Media release: 28 June 2011.  “The NSW Office of Environment and Heritage reports today that higher concentrations of PM2.5 particles measured at the Muswellbrook and Singleton air quality monitoring sites in the Upper Hunter over the weekend was likely due to woodheater use".  Full text left (click left to enlarge).
The seasonal pattern of measurements of at Muswellbrook, from the start of monitoring in December 2010 tend to confirm that woodsmoke in a significant proportion of wintertime PM2.5 pollution.  The peaks in winter are most likely due to wood heaters, with a somewhat elevated background level from mining and possibly some hazard-reduction burns in spring.

But not as much as colder areas where more households use wood heaters
Comparison: Armidale vs Muswellbrook.
Although Muswellbrook's pollution seems quite high, rural towns where a higher proportion of households use wood heating have even higher pollutions, as shown by the comparison of PM2.5 levels in Muswellbrook and Armidale, NSW.  On still, windless days wood smoke is not blown away (photos, right), resulting in double the PM2.5 pollution of coal towns such as Muswellbrook.
And Canberra

Despite ABS data on main source of energy for heating 2011 (click to enlarge) - wood heaters used as the main form of heating by 2.3% of ACT residents

The National Pollutant Inventory data for 2007-08 show that two thirds of Canberra's health-hazardous PM10 (and by implication PM2.5) and PAH emissions are from domestic solid fuel heating.

PAH emissions (benzene like compounds) are linked to cancers and genetic damage of unborn babies leading to increased risk of asthma, reduced IQ when children start school and behavioural problems such as ADHD.

National Pollutant Inventory graph of PAH emissions (2007-08) for the ACT