While there’s nothing more comforting than pulling up a seat by the fire in the height of winter, it seems they could be costing us our health with experts warning a major reform is needed to prevent the growing number of premature deaths from smoke pollution.
After a year-long study into woodfires surveying air quality in Armidale, NSW, – which has a population of just over 29,000 – the startling findings have revealed the pollution resulted in 14 premature deaths and a reduction in the life expectancy of the residents of the town by a year.
According to the study, domestic wood heating is a major source of air pollution in Australia, including fine particulate matter (particles less than 2.5 μm aerodynamic diameter, PM2.5 ) which is generally regarded as the most hazardous air pollutant. In Armidale, the research found particulate matter in the air during the colder months increased six-fold.
While the research focused on premature death, there were a range of other adverse health risks from smoke pollution including premature birth, lower birth weight, stroke, neurodegenerative disease, diabetes, deep venous thrombosis, and cardiovascular and lung disease. The author Dr Dorothy Robinson, from the University of New England, told The ABC people died from the health impacts of long-term smoke exposure, though she warned the figure was potentially underestimated.
“Typically, heart attacks and strokes are the main reasons for the premature deaths,” she said.
The report found that wood fire deaths have an estimated annual financial cost of $32.8 million, or $10 930 per wood heater per year and “indicates that effective policies are needed to reduce wood heater pollution”, calling for reform and education to reduce wood heater pollution.
“The substantial mortality and financial cost attributable to wood heating in Armidale indicate that effective policies are needed to reduce wood heater pollution, including public education about the effects of wood smoke on health, subsidies that encourage residents to switch to less polluting home heating, assistance for those affected by wood smoke from other people, and regulations that reduce wood heater use,” the report concluded.
For the 5.6 million residents of the Greater Sydney, Newcastle, Wollongong region and surrounding areas, there are 420 premature deaths a year are attributed to PM2.5 pollution, with wood heaters contributing 24–42 per cent of PM2.5 in the atmosphere. While in the five-month period from October 2019, to February 2020 417 lives were lost as a result of the wood smoke pollution from the bushfires which ravaged the state.
According to the report, there is evidence the wood fire smoke could also be aggravating Covid-19, with a recent review finding that both short and long term exposure to air pollution may be increasing transmission, severity, and lethality of the virus.
Outdoor fire pits have also come under fire in recent months, with Bunnings Warehouse copping criticism for the sale of the items in April, after a photo of their current range sparked controversy on social media. “A hideous line-up of products that will pollute your neighbourhood with carcinogenic wood smoke,” wrote one Twitter user. “Come on @Bunnings and @BandQ. Think about people’s health before your profits. Do something positive today – stop promoting these highly polluting things.”