Air Pollution Scandals

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
he 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 process.”

Continued failure to protect public health
Very 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
Prof 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
The 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 areasThe NSW Asthma Foundation warned that: wood smoke emissions in winter pose a bigger health danger in built up urban areas than cars or cigarettesAustralian 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
A 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
Figures 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 to 83,300. 

Legal consequences 
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.



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,

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.

Table H1. The health cost of woodsmoke is estimated to be over $8 billion - reference below 
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)

The graph below of PM2.5 pollution measurements in Sydney and the Hunter Valley confirm that pollution increases in winter.  Chemical fingerprinting of PM2.5 particles in the mining town of Muswellbrook found that in 2012 62% of fine particles in winter (30% year round) were from domestic wood heaters.  
The high levels of PM2.5 pollution in winter have continued, illustrating that current efforts to reduce woodsmoke pollution by education on how to operate wood heaters is ineffective, as has been found in elsewhere.  
A far better strategy would be to implement the 3 most cost-effective measures in Table H1 above - not allowing new wood heaters, requiring existing heaters to be removed before houses are sold and licencing fees that provide funds to subsidize the installation of non-polluting heating and assist families whose health or lifestyle has been affected by other people's woodsmoke.  
Once a new test has been developed that measures real-life emissions and an appropriate standard (based on the health costs of emissions) set, the ban on new wood heaters could be lifted.

PM2.5 is considered the most health-hazardous air pollutant; a recent study an increase of 2 μg/m3 in PM2.5 exposure was associated with a 0.32% smaller total cerebral brain volume and a 46% higher risk of covert brain infarcts, a type of silent stroke.   Despite its proximity to mines and power stations generating electricity for 3.25 million homes, CSIRO's chemical fingerprinting showed that 62% of PM2.5 in Muswellbrook in winter was from domestic wood heaters.  People need impartial information to counter the widespread misunderstanding that the woodsmoke-polluted air they breathe has only a fraction of the PM2.5 pollution from coal and power station pollution in the Hunter Valley, when it fact woodsmoke is also the dominant pollutant in the air of Hunter Valley towns such as Muswellbrook.