The air pollution from wood burning in homes is responsible for more than £1bn a year in health-related damages in the UK and €10bn (£8.5bn) across the EU, according to a report.
The analysis from the European Public Health Alliance found the total costs of early deaths, illness and lost work resulting from outdoor air pollution produced by all home heating was €29bn a year.
Wood burning was the biggest single cause of these costs, accounting for 54% of the total in the UK and 40% in the EU. This is despite wood stoves producing only 11% of heat in UK homes and 14% in the EU. The report combines burning wood in stoves and on open fires: in the UK two-thirds of people use stoves.
The researchers said their cost estimates were conservative because lack of data prevented them from including the impact of indoor air pollution from heating.
Compared with transport, regulators have largely neglected heating and cooking as sources of air pollution, the EPHA said. The report found that heat pumps and solar water heaters produced no air pollution at homes using them.
“It is clearer than ever that burning biomass and fossil fuels at home is not only an environmental problem, but also a major health problem,” said Milka Sokolović, the EPHA director general. “The solution, obviously, lies in ensuring that homes are powered by clean renewables. As people are grappling with high energy prices, we must avoid quick and dirty solutions.”
Air pollution is the single biggest environmental risk to health, causing millions of early deaths a year globally. In the EU, just one of pollutants, small particles under 2.5 microns in size (PM2.5), is blamed for 300,000 deaths a year. A comprehensive global review in 2019 found that air pollution may be damaging every organ in the human body.
Recent reports have highlighted the high levels of pollution produced by wood burners. The stoves emit more particles than traffic in the UK, where only 8% of homes have them and 95% of stove owners have other sources of heating. Wood burning stoves in urban areas are also responsible for almost half of people’s exposure to the cancer-causing chemicals found in dirty air, another study concluded.
The new report was produced for EPHA by the Dutch consultancy CE Delft. The health-related social costs were derived using data from Eurostat and other sources on fuel emissions, energy use and links to disease for seven pollutants. These costs included premature death, illness, greater healthcare spending and lower productivity. The data was from 2018, the latest available.
The analysis found that for most countries – 18 out of 28 – the health-related social costs due to people heating their homes were higher than the costs due to their use of cars and other transport.
The most damaging type of heating were coal boilers, which resulted in €1,200 of damages a year and these accounted for 64% of the total costs in Poland. Wood stoves were the second most damaging, with average costs of €750 a year, causing 84% of costs in Italy. “For comparison, we roughly estimated that driving a diesel car for one year causes health-related social costs of €210,” the researchers wrote.
In the UK, the health-related social costs of wood stoves is about 40 times higher than a gas boiler over a year. “Obviously, when someare very polluting, they have a high share of the social cost estimates, but only a relatively minor share of the final energy consumption,” said environmental economist Marisa Korteland at CE Delft.
The EU is set to tighten air pollution limits in 2022 and may tighten Ecodesign pollution limits for heaters. The latest Ecodesign wood stoves, which become mandatory in January for new sales in the EU and UK, emit 750 times more tiny particle pollution than a modern HGV truck, an October report showed.
Earlier in March, the UK government proposed new air quality limits for 2040 that would allow twice as much PM2.5 pollution in England as the World Health Organization (WHO) recommends as an upper limit today.