‘Eco’ wood burners produce 450 times more pollution than gas heating – report

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“Ecodesign” wood stoves produce 450 times more toxic air pollution than gas central heating, according to new data published in a report by the UK’s chief medical officer, Prof Chris Whitty.

According to the report, old stoves, which are now banned for sale, produce 3,700 times more, while electric heating produces none at all.

Whitty chose air pollution as the focus of its 2022 annual report. “It kills a lot of people. [and] It causes many diseases and disabilities throughout life,” he said. “Air pollution causes problems from the time before humans are born to their last days on earth.”

The report estimates that between 26,000 and 38,000 people die annually from outdoor air pollution. No estimates have been made for the impact of indoor pollution, which Whitty says urgently needs more research.

The comprehensive report noted that most types of air pollution have declined over the past 50 years. But evidence of the harm that polluted air can do at even low levels has skyrocketed, and scientists now think it harms every organ in the body.

“Air pollution has improved and will continue to improve as long as we are active in tackling it,” Whitty said. “We can and should go further.”

“If the government doesn’t do something about it, it’s unclear who else can,” he said. “Frankly, my wish is air pollution [action] to act as soon as possible.” The government missed the statutory deadline to set a new air pollution target in October, and many urban areas still have illegal levels of nitrogen dioxide pollution.

“Solid fuels are by far the most polluting method of heating homes, and wood burning has grown in popularity in recent years,” the report said. The report said that small particle pollution is the most dangerous to health, and pollution from wood burning increased by more than a third from 2010 to 2020. It is stated that most of the 1.5 million households that burn wood do so for aesthetic reasons.

“In my view, there’s a big difference between having a very dense urban area where everybody uses wood burning, and someone doing it primarily in a rural area where they have themselves, their families, and a lot of sheep,” Whitty said.

Related: Burning wood at home in the UK incurs health costs of around £1bn a year, report says

He said he supports informing people rather than a ban, noting that dry wood produces a quarter of the pollution of wet wood, for example. “We want people to have information and good choices, but we’re not trying to completely restrict choice except in areas where we already have clean air zones,” Whitty said. “We don’t want to go back to where we were before by not implementing them.”

A report released in November found that despite more than 8,000 complaints filed, no local authority with a smoke control area had imposed penalties for smoke pollution in the past five years. Whitty’s report states that “many regions of the United States have imposed incineration bans to reduce home heating emissions” when weather conditions can cause high pollution levels.

While some pollutants have declined over the past 50 years, Whitty said ammonia pollution from farms has remained virtually unchanged. Ammonia comes largely from animal manure and reacts in the atmosphere creating harmful particles that are blown into cities. “It’s a matter of choice,” he said, as the Netherlands reduced ammonia emissions in the 1990s by mandating the slurry to be fed directly into the soil.

The report also showed that small particle pollution has barely dropped over the past decade. The government’s proposed target for this pollution is set for 2040, twice the WHO’s limit.

Whitty said electric vehicles are essential to reducing nitrogen dioxide pollution, largely from diesel vehicles: “It’s really important that we don’t experience a backsliding in progress towards electrification, because that will essentially take that out of the picture.” He also said that people who idle diesel and petrol cars outside of school are “incredibly antisocial.”

Electric vehicles still produce some pollution particles from road and brake wear, and Whitty said it’s important to encourage walking and cycling: “If you look back at the 1950s, a lot of people were cycling who wouldn’t be cycling now. We can easily reverse it.” According to the report, in the 1950s people cycled about 20 billion kilometers a year, compared to 7 billion in 2021. Safer bike lanes are a way to encourage more cycling, he said.

In public transport, Whitty said that although the London Underground is electrified, it has the highest air pollution of any underground system in Europe, largely due to poor ventilation.

Andrea Lee of the environmental law charity ClientEarth, which had previously defeated the government in court over air pollution schemes, said: “The government seems to be asleep at the wheel. Ministers have missed their statutory deadlines to set pollution targets in law, and this delay is costing people’s health and putting more strain on the NHS and our economy. What does it take for the government to address this public health threat?”

Sarah Woolnough, CEO of Asthma + Lung UK, said: “This new report should serve as a call for the government to be bolder in tackling polluted air. Air pollution is a public health emergency.”

Dr Gary Fuller from Imperial College London said action needed to go beyond the targets: “In the 21st century. A century of evidence tells us there is no zero impact threshold for exposure to air pollution. This means that our efforts should not just focus on the worst places and stop when we reach legal limits. We must seize every opportunity to reduce air pollution.”

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