Australia has an even worse air pollution scandal than VW’s efforts to fool the pollution tests of diesel cars. The NSW Air Emissions Community Web tool (right) shows that diesel pollution represents a tiny fraction of PM2.5 (the most health-hazardous
air pollutant) emissions in Australia.
PM2.5 cause more deaths than any other pollutant
The American Heart Association and the World Health Organization (WHO) report that fine particulate (PM2.5) pollution
affects more people than any other pollutant, with chronic exposure causing the
most deaths from serious disease. Health authorities warn there is no safe level of PM2.5 pollution. Recent studies show that breathing PM2.5 pollution can cause considerable health damage, including strokes, heart and lung diseases, cot deaths, reductions in brain volume, Alzheimers, dementia, autism and restricted lung development in children.
4.3% of households, more than half of PM2.5 emissions
Only 4.3% of households in Sydney used wood as the main form of heating in 2008 (ABS data, below right) so it's much more outrageous than the VW scandal that our governments allow residential wood heating to emit over 5,000 tonnes PM2.5 per year in Sydney, more than half of Sydney's man-made PM2.5 emissions.
Public sold dirtier woodheaters than those used in emissions tests
The failures and deceit surrounding wood
heater pollution have been known for many years. In 2007, Prof John Todd discussed problems exposed by an audit in 2003 that compared 47 popular
wood heater models in retail outlets with the specs of the ones used for emissions testing - 70% were found to differ in ways that was considered likely to increase their pollution. Twelve models were re-tested in the lab and 7 failed. On average, the models that failed were nearly 4 times more polluting than their certified
values. Prof Todd adds: “In
the author’s opinion, it seems unacceptable that state and federal governments
are aware that large numbers of non-compliant heaters have been sold, yet they
are not telling the public.”
Prof Todd's article notes: ““The past decade has mainly
relied on self-regulation. But through a series of circumstances, largely
unplanned by government authorities, a situation has developed where the
industry association, which represents some, but not all, Australian wood
heater manufacturers, has a veto on the emission test method, a veto on the
emission and efficiency limit (unless individual states choose to set their own
limits in legislation), runs the certification process covering all
manufacturers and both test laboratories, and participates in the auditing of
the whole process. It is reasonable to ask whether such a situation is in the
best interests of all manufacturers and the community. Even good
self-regulation requires some independent oversight of the
Continued failure to protect public health
little has changed since that article was written. A peer-reviewed paper (published November 2014) describes the continued failure to protect public health.
2 hours wood heating worse than driving a petrol car for a year
There is general agreement that the manufacturers of a motor vehicle emitting toxic fumes that might damage the health of some users should be sued. Why should
wood stoves be different? Case studies show that toxic
fumes from wood stoves have damaged the health of people living nearby, and add considerably to the health-hazardous PM2.5 pollution we breathe. Lighting and using the average new wood heaters for a couple of hours is likely to emit 20 grams of PM2.5 pollution, more than the average petrol car in an entire year. The sales blurb and public statements of the wood heating industry e.g. “Australian
Home Heating Association general manager Demi Brown said wood heaters had
minimal emissions when used properly” could therefore me considered misleading.
We should all be outraged at VW’s use of
software to fool the pollution tests, but be thankful that offending vehicles will be recalled and fixed. But there should be even greater outrage at the failure to protect public health from
wood heater pollution. Submitting a prototype for emissions testing then changing
the design so that the model actually sold to the public was much more
polluting is equally despicable, as is the fact that, unlike the VW scandal, no
attempts were ever made to recall or repair the offending heaters.
New test to measure real-life emissions abandoned after opposition by industry
Todd’s article also notes the problems with the current wood heater test method, and that
the industry association (the AHHA) is allowed to veto any proposed
changes to the test method and required level of emissions. In 2007, a majority
of the Standards Australia Committee recommended halving of the emissions limit (to a value 33% less strict than the limit imposed by the New Zealand government in 2005 for all heaters installed in urban areas) as an interim measure while a new test that more
closely reflected real-life emissions was developed. The stricter limit was approved by the majority
of the committee, but never implemented because of a lack of industry support.
After the failure
to gain industry support for the stricter emissions limit, work on the new test to measure real-life emissions was abandoned and the old, totally unacceptably
polluting “standard” remained in force for several years. At the request of the wood heating industry,
a new Committee with no health or epidemiological experts was set up in 2013. That Committee agreed to make modest changes
to the emissions limit based on the old test (that bears little or no
relationship to real-life emissions).
Current wood heater models too polluting to be allowed
unsatisfactory nature of this process was highlighted by one of the few independent
members of the Committee, the Clean Air Society of Australia and New Zealand. CASANZ's submission to the NSW Government in May
2015 recommended that “action to ban domestic solid fuel burning
for domestic heating should be seriously considered”.
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 have little relationship to measurements from a perfectly operated test model under laboratory conditions.
Wood Heating Industry mis-represented facts to a Senate Inquiry
Senate Inquiry in 2013 into the health effects of air pollution investigated claims made by Demi Brown (on behalf of the industry body, the AHHA) that the failure in 2007
to update the standard was because of a Standards Australia reshuffle. The Senate Inquiry report confirms that this claim is untrue - the failure was because of industry opposition. Over the years, the AHHA has made many incorrect and misleading claims.
Health costs of thousands of dollars per year for every new wood heater in Sydney
in the Federal Government’s Wood Heater Consultation Regulation ImpactStatement (CRIS, published April 2013) show that 1 kg of PM2.5 emissions has
estimated health costs of $262 in major capital cities. The NSW Government’s Woodsmoke ControlOptions report (June 2011) shows that a brand new wood heater satisfying the
current “standard” and burning 2 tonnes of firewood per year (a typical amount for
Sydney) has estimated PM2.5 emissions of about 16.4 kg per year with estimated
health costs of over $4,300 per year.
Compare this with the average petrol car travelling 20,000 km to year
and estimated PM2.5 emissions of about 20 grams. The current “standard” allows a brand new
wood heater to be more polluting, in terms of PM2.5 (the most health-hazardous
air pollutant) than 800 passenger cars.
Australia: PM2.5 cause thousands of premature deaths every year
A review of the health effects of PM2.5 pollution estimated that PM2.5 pollution above background caused 1586 premature deaths in Sydney, Melbourne, Perth and Brisbane in 2008. The estimate for Sydney was 520 premature deaths, representing 6,300 lost years of life. Sydney's average PM2.5 measurements in 2013 were 35% higher (at Chullora, Earlwood, Liverpool and Richmond, at 8.5 ug/m3), equivalent to about 877 premature deaths per year.
Man-made PM2.5 emissions from all sources in Sydney except wood-heaters
fell by 38% (from 8,623 in 2003 to 5,321 tonnes/year in 2008) but woodheater emissions
increased by 21% from 4,503 to 5,457 tonnes per year in 2008. The 5,457 tonnes of PM2.5 emissions from residential
wood heating in Sydney in 2008 represent more than half of all PM2.5 emissions in
that year, despite only 4.3% of Sydney households using wood as the main form
of heating. From 2008 to 2011, use of
wood heaters continued to increase from 70,700 households burning wood as the
main form of heating in Sydney
Despite not having regulatory powers over workplace health and safety, the Federal Government was deemed partly responsible for employers failing to provide a safe workplace in the case of the tragic deaths of 4 employees installing insulation as part the Home Insulation Scheme. Victims' families were compensated after the $20 million Royal Commission.
By continuing to allow new wood heaters to be installed in urban areas, knowing that the current "standard" is totally inadequate (because it is based on a test that does not measure real-life emissions), the wood heating industry, governments and those responsible for allowing the industry to veto changes to emissions limits that are necessary to protect public health are just as guilty of causing premature deaths as the shoddy employers and the lack of government oversight in the pink batts scheme.
This failure to regulate wood heater pollution contributes significantly to the health costs of air pollution that causes thousands of deaths per year.
By not insisting on a test of based on how people operate wood heaters in their homes, governments, industry and those responsible for the current "standards" are as guilty as the instigators of the VW diesel defeat device. The end result is to grossly under-estimate the level of real-life emissions.
Victims whose health or lifestyle has been affected by the excessive pollution from new wood heaters because of the failures listed above deserve to be compensated. Steps should also be taken to prevent future damage by implementing the 3 most cost-effective measures in Table H1 (right) that are predicted to save at least $6 billion in health costs in NSW, or at least $20 billion, pro-rated for the whole of Australia.