Victoria White: The truth hurts but lungs filled with smoke hurts much more

Wood and turf smoke is just as bad for human health as coal smoke.

Victoria White: The truth hurts but lungs filled with smoke hurts much more

Wood and turf smoke is just as bad for human health as coal smoke. Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said as much last week, after Health Minister Simon Harris raised the issue at Cabinet. The truth always hurts and that’s particularly the case in politics.

It’s because our democratic political parties don’t want to be hurt that they have a problem with the truth. That’s why I greeted the Government’s statement, reported this week,that there could be a consultation on a national ban on burning these fuels as well as on burning coal with amazement.

Where were they now, those evil foreign coal companies conjured up by Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin, the “vested interests” which were threatening legal action if the Government introduced a nationwide ban on the burning of smoky coal?

Proved right, to some extent, though Varadkar himself has done an whiplash-inducing U-turn,pathetically accusing Martin of wanting to stop people burning turf and wood as part of a “growing anti-rural agenda”. It’s clearly questionable to be promoting Bord na Móna peat briquettes —“When does finishing the chapter become finishing the book? When you light the fire!”, purrs the current radio ad — while banning the burning of smoky coal.

We know the harvesting of peat for briquettes should end by 2026 which should bring an end to their State-funded promotion. Wood is a different matter, though. Wood is the sustainable, zero-carbon answer to home heating. Or so I thought anyway, to the extent that about a decade ago I installed not just a wood stove but also a wood log gasifier to run the central heating.

It was a disaster. The logs were dumped in the drive and then ferried through the house by a chain gang of whingeing children. Even then, the drama was not over. The wood gasifier, started with cornflakes packets and sticks, had to be loaded with logs which it totally incinerated, heating a gigantic tank with water.

If the cold snap was over by the time this was achieved, the water was wasted and you had to start again next time. Except you didn’t. It was too hard. We stopped using our massively expensive infrastructure within a few months.

It didn’t matter much, however, because our superbly insulated house could be nearly completely heated by running the wood stove in the kitchen during the hours of darkness.

It was inexpertly fitted and it smoked. We had to repaint the whole kitchen several times.

But I believed my own publicity to the point that I didn’t countenance the idea that the smoke might be impacting the health of my asthmatic daughter or my health-challenged Labrador, much less the health of my neighbours. It was wood smoke! It could do no harm! Untrue.

A recent report from the World Health Organisation’s Europe office states that exposure to particles from wood combustion “appears to be as harmful to health as exposure to particles from the combustion of fossil fuels”. It contains at least 28 compounds which have been found to be toxic in animal studies, including 14 carcinogenic compounds and four “cancer promoting agents”. Short-term exposure to these particles impacts lung and cardio-vascular health.

Harmful particulates from wood smoke make up between 20% and 30% of outdoor particulate pollution during the heating season in Europe. Italian studies recorded a percentage of between 40% and 85% in seven urban and three rural areas and a Seattle study found percentages between 31% and 62%.

Long-term direct exposure to wood smoke can be associated with respiratory infections and disorders such as pneumonia, asthma, COPD, lung cancer (in women), stillbirths, and low weight babies, particularly in low-income countries. With air pollution considered a global health emergency by the WHO, campaigns to limit polluting wood smoke have been launched all over the place.

In California’s San Joaquin Valley a pollution problem has led to the introduction of “No Burn” days. When this was enforced on over 100 days in 2012 there was a reduction of between 7% and 11% in presentations to hospital by the elderly with heart problems.

In Tasmania’s Lauceston an exchange programme of wood stoves for electric heating saw a 10% reduction in the number of deaths in the over-65s though there was no reduction in the capital Hobart, where the scheme was not running.

The threat of wood smoke is being taken seriously all over the developed world. The UK’s new clean air strategy will ban the sale of wood stoves which do not meet strict environmental criteria by 2022. Perhaps our clean air strategy, due out in the coming months, will follow suit.

It is unlikely that wood burning will face a total ban in the near future because there are better and worse wood stoves and there is better and worse wood.

Wood pellet heating systems, which attracted Government grants here a decade ago, are much less polluting than traditional stoves. Wet wood is more harmful than dry wood. There has been some success with the use of filters against outdoor pollution and even portable filters brought from room to room for indoor pollution.

The log gasifier which I so lambasted at the top of the page is an efficient form of stove if working properly and with a big enough water tank; if it is working at 100% efficiency it can also be a zero-carbon energy source as it releases only the CO2 that the logs originally took in.

“Black Carbon”, which is emitted by most wood stoves, is as sinister as it sounds, impacting not just health, but also acting as “an important short-lived climate forcer”, to use the words of the WHO, which calls for “alignment” between a country’s policies on greenhouse gas emissions and its health policy.

Putting those words into action would mean saving the 1,100 who die in this country every year due to air pollution as well as the future generations who could die prematurely due to climate change.

That means a nationwide ban on the burning of smoky coal and peat/turf, and research on the effect on health of “smokeless coal”, as well as a ban on the use of any but the most efficient stoves which should be installed by specially registered installers and fired with quality assured wood.

It requires incentivising the shift to heat pumps fuelled by cleanly produced electricity. We moved to an electric heat pump a couple of years ago. We knocked down walls to extract our wood gasifier and have never since used our kitchen stove.

We could (somehow) afford this. Most can’t. The Government must spit out the facts about burning wood and help us to stop doing it because the truth will hurt us less than lungs full of smoke.

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