Burning wood at home in the UK causes £1bn in health costs a year, report says | air pollution

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Air pollution from wood burning in homes is responsible for more than £1bn a year of health-related damage in the UK and €10bn (£8.5bn), according to a report.

The European Public Health Alliance’s analysis found that the total cost of premature deaths, illness and job loss due to outdoor air pollution caused by all domestic heating was €29 billion per year.

Wood burning was the largest contributor to these costs, accounting for 54% of the total in the UK and 40% in the EU. This is despite wood burning stoves producing only 11% of the heat in homes in the UK and 14% in the EU. The report combines wood burning in stoves and fireplaces: in the UK two thirds of people use stoves.

Wood-burning stoves are responsible for the bulk of UK health costs caused by pollution from domestic heating

The researchers said their cost estimates were conservative because lack of data prevented them from factoring in the impact of indoor air pollution from heating.

Compared to transportation, regulators have largely neglected heating and cooking as sources of air pollution, the EPHA said. The report found that heat pumps and solar water heaters did not cause air pollution in homes that use them.

“It is clearer than ever that burning biomass and fossil fuels at home is not only an environmental problem, but also a major health problem,” said Milka Sokolović, Director General of EPHA. “The solution, of course, lies in ensuring that homes are powered by clean, renewable energy sources. As people struggle with high energy prices, we must avoid quick and dirty solutions.”

Air pollution is the greatest environmental risk to health, causing millions of premature deaths worldwide every year. In the EU, only one of the pollutants, small particles smaller than 2.5 microns (PM2.5), is responsible for 300,000 deaths per year. A comprehensive global assessment in 2019 found that air pollution can damage every organ in the human body.

Recent reports have highlighted the high levels of pollution from wood-burning stoves. The stoves emit more particulates than traffic in the UK where only 8% of homes have them and 95% of stove owners have other sources of heating. Wood-burning stoves in urban areas are also responsible for nearly half of people’s exposure to the cancer-causing chemicals found in dirty air, another study concluded.

The new report was prepared for EPHA by the Dutch consultancy CE Delft. Health-related social costs were derived using data from Eurostat and other sources on fuel emissions, energy consumption and disease links for seven pollutants. These costs include premature death, illness, higher health care expenditure and lower productivity. The data was from 2018, the latest available.

Pollution from wood-burning stoves results in annual health costs of €12 billion in the EU and UK

The analysis found that for most countries – 18 out of 28 – the health-related social costs of people heating their homes were higher than the costs of using cars and other transport.

The most damaging form of heating was coal boilers, resulting in €1,200 damage per year and accounting for 64% of total costs in Poland. Wood-burning stoves were the second most damaging, with an average cost of €750 per year, accounting for 84% of the cost in Italy. “By comparison, we roughly estimate that driving a diesel car for a year causes health-related social costs of €210,” the researchers wrote.

In the UK, the health-related social costs of wood-burning stoves are about 40 times higher than a gas boiler over a year. “Of course, when some [fuels and appliances] are very polluting, have a high share in social cost estimates, but only a relatively small share in final energy consumption,” says environmental economist Marisa Korteland of CE Delft.

The EU will tighten air pollution limits in 2022 and may tighten ecodesign pollution limits for heating appliances. The latest Ecodesign wood-burning stoves, which will become mandatory for new sales in the EU and UK in January, emit 750 times more particulate pollution than a modern truck, an October report shows.

Earlier in March, the UK government proposed new air quality limits for 2040 that would allow twice as much PM2.5 pollution into England as the World Health Organization (WHO) recommends as the upper limit today.

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