For almost two million homes in the UK, solid fuels, particularly wood, are a part of everyday life. For many, this is the enjoyment of a warm log fire, for others it is the only way to heat their homes.
But the grim, and perhaps unwelcome, reality is that many of us are unknowingly causing serious damage to our health, that of our children and our neighbours as a consequence of burning solid fuels in the home.
The most harmful type of pollutant emitted by solid fuels – primarily wood, though coal also plays a small but significant role – is PM2.5. This pollutant has been linked to asthma, lung cancer, infant mortality, low birthweight and cardiovascular diseases. Of the 40,000 deaths linked to air pollution every year in the UK, 29,000 are caused by exposure to PM2.5.
One of the main culprits of this type of emissions in the home is the burning of wet firewood. While it has been known for centuries that burning wet logs creates more smoke, it has been less well known how damaging this pollution can be to human health.
So what steps should we take to reduce this household pollution as quickly as possible? As IPPR’s new report suggests, the answer is a combination of higher overall ambition, communicating the risks to consumers, changing our own behaviour, and urgent policy action.
It starts with stricter limits on air pollution. Despite the fact that PM2.5 is more harmful to human health than current illegally high concentrations of the pollutant Nitrous Dioxide (NO2), it is technically within EU limits to which the UK is subscribed. To focus our attention, the government must adhere to stricter guidelines set by the World Health Organisation, which many parts of the country are already exceeding.
Next, the government needs to communicate the harmful effects of domestic burning more widely and more comprehensively. This will not only include information about how bad wet wood is for our health, but also the types of stoves we should buy and the most efficient way to pile logs within them.
Armed with this information, we can all take action to minimise harmful indoor pollution. If you have to burn logs, use the most efficient stove you can afford and when you are buying wood make sure you know what the moisture content is at the point of sale – around 15 per cent is the current accepted standard by the woodfuel certification scheme Woodsure.
At the same time, the government needs to work with industry to ensure that the kinds of stoves we buy are as efficient as they can be. This means creating stricter standards, even beyond the EU Ecodesign regulations that are due to come into force by 2022, for which the stove industry is already well prepared.
Ensuring efficiency also involves rigorous testing of these stoves. One of the reasons why the VW diesel scandal occurred – involving cheating on vehicle performance tests – was that the tests themselves were poorly designed and did not reflect real world usage. To make sure that the stoves which consumers buy are as efficient as they say they are, testing conditions must therefore reflect how we might use them in our homes.
Ultimately, however, there is no “safe” level of pollution and the endgame should be to eliminate all emissions coming from sources in the home.
As we argue in our report, delivering this will include providing greater powers of enforcement for local councils to stop people using open fires – the least efficient way of burning fuels – in densely populated areas. The use of open fires in many cities across the UK has been illegal for many years but is notoriously difficult to stop due to the limited capacity of councils to go on patrol.
But consumer choice is difficult to influence with warnings and enforcement alone, especially when it comes to the warm glow of a log fire. In fact, as our report shows, for approximately 165,000 homes in the UK, there is no choice at all as these households depend on firewood as their primary source of heating.
In the long-term the solution is therefore to promote alternatives, starting with people who depend on solid fuels rather than simply enjoy them. These alternatives will range from individual household technologies like solar thermal panels and air source heat pumps to whole heat network systems that incorporate multiple homes.
To convince people to make the switch, these technologies must be funded properly so that they are available to consumers at competitive prices. And while some technologies are already receiving some financial support because of their low carbon credentials, the opportunity to provide cleaner air in our homes provides a much more urgent rationale to promote these technologies.
Quite simply, we are risking serious impacts on our health and our lives if we do not.
Josh Emden is a Research Fellow IPPR. You can find the report Lethal and Legal here. He tweets @JoshEmden