Dr. Tom Smith is a specialist in studying wildfires. He has dedicated his career to monitoring and researching wildland fires in savannahs and tropical peatlands worldwide. However, his most recent inquiry was in his own backyard.
On a weekend in early December, Smith noticed the familiar scent of wood smoke inside their apartment. Being aware of the negative health impacts from their research, they decided to step outside with a portable pollution sensor to locate the source.
The level of air pollution on the street was higher than inside. “When I stepped outside, my sensor readings increased. A brief walk in the opposite direction confirmed my suspicions: the pub across from my neighborhood was emitting smoke from its chimney.”
“The levels of pollution in the area directly in front of the pub were even higher than those outside my apartment. Ongoing exposure to such high levels of pollution can worsen heart and lung conditions for anyone within the smoke plume, with children, asthmatics, and pregnant women being especially susceptible.”
Smith’s situation is not an uncommon occurrence. During the previous winter, scientists from Imperial College London conducted a study on the levels of wood and coal smoke in both gardens and streets. Additional proof comes from ordinary citizens, such as a group of acquaintances who monitor the movement of smoke as it travels through gardens and enters homes in Chorley, Lancashire.
In the previous month, I went to a highly advanced air pollution monitoring site in the southern part of Manchester, UK. There, researchers from the University of Manchester conduct thorough measurements of gases and particles present in the air. The rooftop is covered with sample pipes that draw air into the instruments below. A laser is used to scan the sky for air pollution, while another set of lasers creates a light barrier to measure rain and fog.
Dr James Allan sat down at a computer screen and looked at data streams from the past 24 hours. It was clear that the particle pollution in the city had changed around sunset. During the day there were clear signs of traffic emissions, but in the evening the air contained smoke from home fires.
According to Allan, during winter nights, there are significant levels of particle pollution, with particles smaller than 1 micron. These particles mainly consist of organic matter and black carbon, which is similar to soot.
He described the process by which his equipment identifies burning wood by measuring varying wavelengths of light. “Soot from burning wood absorbs more ultraviolet light than emissions from fossil fuels, and when we analyze the readings from daytime and nighttime, we can detect this pattern. This suggests that wood burning has a greater impact during nighttime.”
Consistent exposure has health consequences. According to a recent research, approximately 284 individuals in London pass away prematurely annually due to outdoor air pollution caused by burning solid fuels for heating purposes. The study also suggests that this pollution is responsible for around 90 new cases of childhood asthma, 60 new cases of stroke, and 30 new cases of lung cancer each year. This results in a health burden of nearly £800 per year for the average Londoner who uses a fireplace or stove.
A study conducted by the non-profit organizations Global Action Plan and Impact on Urban Health utilized a computer model of two middle row houses to analyze the expenses associated with various heating options. The houses were simulated to have occupants, one with a family of two children and the other with a retired couple.
Using fossil gas central heating in the neighborhood resulted in an annual health cost of approximately £25. However, incorporating a wood stove to provide 20% of the heating increased the cost significantly, up to £160 for a modern stove and over £1,000 for an older design. It should be noted that this does not factor in any potential health risks for the owners of the wood stoves.
According to Dr. Gesche Huebner, a researcher at University College London, using wood as a source of energy is not a viable solution for achieving net zero emissions or reducing expenses for individuals. It is not a cost-effective or truly sustainable option and poses significant health risks.