What is in smoke from wood-burning heaters?
Smoke from wood-burning heaters is a complex mixture of particles and gases and contributes significantly to air pollution. The main air pollutants in wood smoke are particulate matter (PM), carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxides and a range of other organic compounds like formaldehyde, benzene and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons.
Burning inappropriate fuel such as painted or treated wood or domestic waste may produce other toxic chemicals.
Why is wood smoke important?
The NSW Office of Environment and Heritage estimate that in some towns and cities in NSW, around 30% of total annual emissions of fine particulate matter (PM2.5) are emitted from wood-burning heaters. On a winter weekend, wood-burning heaters may be responsible for more than 60% of fine particle pollution.
Further information may be found at NSW EPA.
How does wood smoke affect health?
There is good evidence that long-term exposure to particulate matter decreases lung function and increases the risk of developing heart and lung diseases like angina and chronic bronchitis (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease).
Short-term exposure (over hours or days) to high levels of wood smoke may cause eye and respiratory tract irritation, aggravate asthma or worsen heart disease.
If you can smell wood smoke you are being exposed and may be at risk of adverse health effects.
Who is most at risk?
Wood smoke can affect anyone. Children, the elderly and people with heart or lung conditions like angina, asthma or emphysema (COPD) are most likely to be affected by wood smoke.
What can you do to reduce the chance of wood smoke affecting your health?
- Don't use a wood-burning heater in your home
- If you choose to use a wood-burning heater, follow the recommendations below to minimise air pollution
- If you have asthma, ensure you follow your asthma management plan
- If you have chronic heart or lung problems, make sure you take all your medications as prescribed and seek medical advice if your symptoms worsen.
If you are affected by wood smoke from other houses, your council may be able to assist you. Councils are able to issue smoke abatement notices to households with chimneys that appear to be emitting excessive smoke (see NSW EPA - Smoke abatement notices)
What can you do to minimise air pollution from your wood-burning heater?
Consider installing a less polluting form of heating, such as a flued gas or electric heater
If you choose to use a wood-burning heater:
- check your wood-burning heater conforms with the Australian Standard (AS/NZS 4013:1999) and that the heater and chimney are installed in line with any council-specific building requirements
- burn only dry, well seasoned and chemically untreated wood
- adjust the air damper on the wood-burning heater to allow sufficient air flow to provide oxygen for clean combustion
- ensure fresh air enters the room to prevent carbon monoxide build up
- make sure the fire burns brightly to ensure enough heat for complete combustion
- never leave a fire smouldering overnight
- check your chimney - if there is visible smoke from it increase the airflow to the fire
- arrange for regular cleaning of the chimney.
More air pollution is produced during fire start up and when a fire is poorly managed - for example, when airflow to the heater is reduced allowing wood to smoulder. Improperly installed heaters or clogged chimneys may increase the amount of air pollution inside the home and increase the likelihood of health effects. Heaters that conform to Australian Standard 4013, are installed properly, operated correctly and adequately maintained are less polluting and less likely to create a nuisance or adverse health effects.
In NSW you can call 1300 066 055 to talk to your local Public Health Unit.