Woodsmoke FAQs

WHY SHOULD I BE SO CONCERNED ABOUT WOOD HEATERS AND WOODSMOKE IN MY NEIGHBOURHOOD?

Residential woodsmoke pollution comes from a number of sources, outdoor fire pits, barbeques, pizza ovens and meat smokers. Evidence shows that in Canberra the largest source of air pollution are slow combustion wood heaters. They are responsible for 67% of our air pollution compared to motor vehicles which are responsible for just 10%. The ACT Government’s own figures show air pollution increases three-fold in the cooler months of the year and it attributes it to the use of wood heaters.  Environmental health and medical experts warn smoke from a wood-burning heater is a complex mixture of particles and gases that can seriously affect your health. They warn the health of those who live with a wood heater in their home can be affected just as much as those who live with one in their neighbourhood. There is little you can do to protect yourself from being exposed to smoke from a neighbouring wood heater and its health impacts. This was confirmed in 2021 by an an Asthma Australia survey of 25 thousand people which found only 28% of the general population and 18% of people with asthma said they are able to protect themselves from wood heater smoke when present and people with asthma reported they were twice as likely to get respiratory symptoms when wood heater smoke was in the air. In August 2021 the Centre for Air pollution, energy and health Research (CAR) released a position paper on reducing the health impacts of wood heaters in Australia and the policy implications. Its key points were;

  • Wood heater smoke significantly contributes to air pollution. Wood heater smoke can impact the health of people who often have no means of controlling their exposure.
  • Wood heater emission and efficiency standards have tightened in recent years, but by themselves are very unlikely to reduce the smoke-related health impacts of wood heaters. Moreover, local councils cannot always ensure compliance with existing regulations relating to smoke emissions from individual chimneys.

In 2021 The Medical Journal of Australia reported a study by Dorothy L Robinson, Joshua A Horsley, Fay H. Johnston and Geoffrey G Morgan found that in Armidale NSW, a city of 24,504 people, 14 premature deaths per year are attributable to air pollution from wood heaters. This corresponds to 210 lost years of life, at an estimated cost of $10,930 per heater per year. The CSIRO listed Armidale as one of the most polluted residential areas in Australia along with Canberra’s Tuggeranong Valley and Launceston Tasmania. (Listen to MJA Podcast). The Health Promotion Journal of Australia has estimated that one slow combustion wood heater adds over $8-thousand dollars to the ACT’s annual health bill. This is a serious problem in Canberra where wood heaters, many of which are old and do not comply with past or current emissions standards, are responsible for the majority of our particle air pollution and many suburbs are known woodsmoke hotspots. It is well documented that woodsmoke contains fine particulate matter (PM2.5), carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxides and a range of other organic compounds like formaldehyde, benzene and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. (See Chemical Table). Medical and environmental health experts say there is no safe level of air pollution. They warn these fine air particles penetrate deep into your lungs and long-term exposure increases the risk of developing heart and lung diseases including cancer. They also warn short-term exposure to high levels of residential woodsmoke pollution may cause eye and respiratory tract irritation, trigger asthma attacks and worsen other pre-existing health problems like heart disease. Children, whose lungs are still developing, the elderly and people with pre-existing heart or lung conditions like angina, asthma or emphysema (COPD) are most likely to be affected by residential woodsmoke pollution (Watch Video). As long ago as April 1991 the ACT Government’s own Standing Committee on Conservation, Heritage and Environment warned in its discussion paper, The Burning Question,   “That a potential health risk of pollutant emissions by solid fuel heaters is intensified by their near ground level release from the suburban household chimney, and a lack of control existing over their contribution to fine particle pollution has implications for public health.” (Page 4). In the Fuelwood Heating Report released in September the same year the committee said, “It is clear to the committee that the extent of fuel wood heating in the ACT, coupled with poor heater operating practices and local weather conditions leads to significant levels of air pollution which causes physical discomfort for many residents, and in some cases, exacerbates health problems.” (Page 2) Quite simply, if you can smell woodsmoke in your neighbourhood you are being exposed and may be at risk of adverse health effects. There are more than 20 private air monitors in Canberra measuring air quality in our neighbourhoods in real time. You can see what air pollution is like now in your local area here. (Click on a coloured circle nearest to your neighbourhood to get a more detailed localised reading of air pollution in your area.) For more information visit;

Woodheaters Damaging to our Lungs (Video ABC News)

The Hidden Harms of Woodsmoke (Video, The Environment Centre)

Health Hazards of Woodsmoke Pollution (Video, Families for Clean Air)

Asthma Australia

Medical Journal of Australia

Clean Air Better Health

American Lung Association

Doctors and Scientists Against Woodsmoke Pollution

Families for Clean Air

Mums for Lungs

WHAT’S IN RESIDENTIAL WOODSMOKE THAT MAKES IT SO HAZARDOUS TO MY HEALTH?

Residential woodsmoke is a cauldron of toxic chemical compounds. Among others it includes;

  • Carbon monoxide (a tasteless, odourless gas poisonous to humans)
  • Formaldehyde (a known cancer-causing substance used in adhesives and for the preservation of bodies)  
  • Benzene (a known cancer-causing substance linked to leukemia and cancers of other blood cells)  
  • Napthalene (an insecticide)
  • Touene (an industrial strength solvent)  
  • Phenol (irritates the eyes, skin and respiratory tract. Long term exposure damages the kidneys and liver)
  • Pyrene (a known cancer-causing chemical found in dyes, plastics and pesticides)
  • Dioxins and Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons (more cancer-causing substances associated with genetic damage in babies)
  • Dibenz(a,h)anthracene (caused mutations in our DNA)  
  • Organic gases (including aldehyde gases and other respiratory irritants), and
  • Nitrogen oxides (contribute to the formation of smog and acid rain, as well as affecting the ozone layer)

All these chemicals are toxic and can affect you if you are exposed to woodsmoke. (See Chemical Table). For more information visit;

Ambient air pollution and epileptic seizures: A panel study in Australia

Doctors and Scientists Against Woodsmoke Pollution

Burning Issues

Harmful impacts of woodsmoke (Video, NSW Environment Protection Authority)

The Hidden Harms of Woodsmoke (Video, The Environment Centre)

HOW DO WE KNOW WHAT EMISSIONS ARE COMING FROM WOOD HEATERS AND WHAT’S COMING FROM OTHER SOURCES?

It’s not rocket science.  Research has found that a typical petrol-fuelled passenger car emits about 0.01g of fine particle (PM2.5) of air pollution per km, or about 150g if driving 15,000 km per year.  Research has also found that if used as the main source of heating, even a new wood heater meeting the latest Australian standards will emit as much fine particle air pollution in a year as 1,049 petrol cars, and an older model as much pollution annually as the exhaust emissions of 1,613 petrol cars. The Department of Environment and Energy’s National Pollution Inventory shows that domestic solid fuel burning is responsible for more than two thirds of particle air pollution in Canberra. The same report shows that motor vehicles are responsible for 10.1% of particle air pollution. The figures for particle pollution therefore support statements by medical and environmental health experts that one wood heater can produce up to seven times as much air pollution as a car. So, if the highest pollution measurements are in Canberra’s residential areas in the cooler months of the year where there are a lot of wood heaters and low traffic levels, there is no doubt about the source of the pollution. In 2003 twelve popular wood heater models were tested for emissions and design specifications, and a further 35 models tested only for design specifications. The tests, supervised by the Department of Environment and Heritage, found the majority were faulty. Those undergoing emissions testing were found to be 2.5 times more polluting than claimed. even under correct operation. One model, claimed to emit 1.8 grams of particulates per kg of wood burned (g/kg), was found to emit 17.7 g/kg even when operated correctly, and perhaps much more when operated in the home environment with no expert supervision. The final report said the most common engineering design fault was the primary air inlets were smaller than originally specified in design drawings. Despite the Department’s findings, and unlike vehicles that are faulty and polluting, there was no national recall of these wood heaters purchased by consumers. Many are likely to still be in operation today.

WHAT’S THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN SMOKE FROM A BUSHFIRE, TOBACCO SMOKE AND SMOKE FROM A WOOD HEATER?

We know that smoke from bushfires and tobacco is just as damaging to your health as smoke from a wood heater. The difference is wood heater smoke occurs right in the neighbourhood were you live. Science also shows smoke from a wood heater is far more dangerous than tobacco smoke. Research by The United States Environmental Protection Agency (US EPA) suggests that a single wood heater operating for an hour and burning 4 kilos of wood generates 4,300 times more carcinogenic polyaromatic hydrocarbons than a packet of cigarettes. The US EPA estimates the lifetime cancer risk from woodsmoke to be 12 times greater than from a similar amount of cigarette smoke. In a laboratory study at Louisiana State University, researchers found that hazardous free radicals in woodsmoke are chemically active 40 times longer than those from cigarette smoke, so once inhaled, they will harm the body for far longer. As individuals we know more about the health impacts of tobacco smoke than we did 30 or 40 years ago because governments took clear and decisive action to educate us to protect our health when the evidence became clear of the harmful health effects of tobacco smoke. Governments introduced tough legislation and fines, banned tobacco advertising and smoking in public places, on public transport and in the workplace. The decisive actions of governments over the decades have resulted in a significant reduction in smoking rates and related deaths. Smoke from bushfires can also be harmful but they are mostly rare events, they are usually at a distance and may burn for a day or several days at the most. When a bushfire occurs, we can be given advance warning enabling us to take steps to protect ourselves from the impact of bushfire smoke. On the other hand, smoke from a wood heater can be generated within close proximity to you. It can be next door or across the road. The smoke is concentrated, and can be continuous as the wood heater is left to smoulder.  It can also be prolonged, lasting for days, weeks and even months. There is little you can do to protect yourself from being exposed to smoke from a neighbouring wood heater and its health impacts. This was confirmed in 2021 by an an Asthma Australia survey of 25 thousand people which found;

  • Only 28% of the general population and 18% of people with asthma said they are able to protect themselves from wood heater smoke when present.
  • People with asthma reported they were twice as likely to get respiratory symptoms when wood heater smoke was in the air.

Despite the science and the mountain of evidence that residential woodsmoke is more carcinogenic than tobacco smoke all levels of government appear reluctant to take decisive action to protect your health. This was highlighted in a NSW Government Budget Estimates Hearing on 1 March 2022 when the NSW Environment Minister said ‘there is no appetite to look at wood heaters.’ This is despite the fact wood heaters are the second largest source of air pollution in Sydney and the largest in many cities and towns in that state, such as Armidale. (Hansard. See page 38)

ISN’T BURNING WOOD FOR DOMESTIC HEATING CLEAN, EFFICIENT AND ENVIRONMENTALLY FRIENDLY?

These claims are disputed by a large number of experts. (See Video) Quite simply, when a tree is cut down and burnt it releases carbon into the atmosphere. This contributes to global warming and it takes decades for a new tree to grow and absorb the carbon that has been released. This is supported in a study by Stanford environmental engineering Professor Mark Z. Jacobson, who says soot, or black carbon, from burning fossil fuels, including wood, may be responsible for 15% to 30% of global warming. It is also supported by UK Environmental Policy analyst and adviser to the United Nations and European Union, Duncan Brack who says for an equal amount of heat or electricity, wood burning releases more CO2 than burning gas, oil and even coal adding to climate change. In 2011 a study by Dr Dorothy Robinson of the National Centre for Rural Greenhouse Gas Research at the University of New England in Armidale NSW found Australian wood heaters currently increase global warming and health costs. In a report to Atmospheric Pollution Research Journal, Dr Robinson said claims that wood heating is greenhouse neutral are incorrect. She found methane emissions of a wood heater in an average living room are similar to the CO2 emissions from heating an entire house with gas. When emissions from supplementary heating are considered, wood heating appears to be the worst option, even if all the wood is from a sustainable source. So, burning wood for domestic heating results in more emissions than burning natural gas or vehicles. More recently and in its push to reduce emissions the ACT Government has announced the natural gas supply will be switched off by 2045 and no new petrol or diesel vehicles will be sold in the ACT by 2035. According to the 2021 National Pollution Inventory wood burning accounts for 67% of fine particle air pollution in the ACT, while natural gas accounts for 22% and motor vehicles account for 9%. The ACT Governments own figures show that wood burning for domestic heating is responsible for a threefold increase in air pollution in Canberra’s Tuggeranong Valley alone during the cooler months of the year. This begs the question that if ACT Government is serious about reducing emissions then it must address the largest single source of air pollution and set a firm date to phase out wood burning for domestic heating in all suburban areas of Canberra. In 2003 twelve popular wood heater models were tested for emissions and design specifications, and a further 35 models tested only for design specifications. The tests, supervised by the Department of Environment and Heritage, found the majority were faulty. Those undergoing emissions testing were found to be 2.5 times more polluting than claimed. even under correct operation. One model, claimed to emit 1.8 grams of particulates per kg of wood burned (g/kg), was found to emit 17.7 g/kg even when operated correctly, and perhaps much more when operated in the home environment with no expert supervision. The final report said the most common engineering design fault was the primary air inlets were smaller than originally specified in design drawings. Despite the Department’s findings, and unlike vehicles that are faulty and polluting, there was no national recall of these wood heaters purchased by consumers. Many are likely to still be in operation today. In 2005 the CSIRO warned burning wood for domestic heating is also responsible for the destruction of many of our eco systems and our bio-diversity as we clear and cut down more and more trees for firewood. As firewood becomes scarce and more and more expensive people fossick for free firewood in our parks, reserves and conservation areas. By doing so they are destroying the habitats of many of our native fauna. Only about 5% of the wood used to fuel wood heaters in Canberra comes from sustainable sources. This was highlighted long ago by the former ACT Commissioner for the Environment, Dr Maxine Cooper, who warned in her 2003 State of the Environment Report; “It would appear that the majority of wood used in the ACT is not sustainably harvested, but is taken primarily from the central plains of New South Wales with a small amount from eastern Victoria.” More recently the CSIRO reported a majority of wood heater owners’ self-collect firewood from rural properties and the bush rather than buying it from a commercial supplier. To further reduce their wood heating bills the CSIRO Survey found wood heater owners also burnt rubbish wood and timber. The Survey found that about a quarter of wood heater owners indicated that recycled wood and offcuts comprise at least a half of the wood used to fuel their wood heaters. This wood can contain oils, paints and other chemicals which only adds to the toxic cocktail already found in neighbourhood woodsmoke pollution. All in all, Australia burns about 5 million tonnes of wood each year. That’s more than we fell, chip and export for paper manufacture. For more information visit;  

Wood burning, sustainable and clean? (Video)

WHAT’S THE ACT GOVERNMENT DOING ABOUT RESIDENTIAL WOODSMOKE POLLUTION IN MY SUBURB?

The ACT Government has introduced an education program around the use of wood heaters, regulations on the sale of fire wood, a generous wood heater replacement program and banned wood heaters in some suburbs. The Wood Heater Replacement Program was introduced in 2004 to provide financial incentives for people to remove their wood heaters. By 2022, a total of only 1232 wood heaters had been surrendered. Only 15 were removed in 2019-20. Meanwhile, there is no account of how many new ones, which can be just as polluting as old ones, have been installed over that period or how many second-hand ones have been installed illegally. The Burn Right Tonight campaign was introduced in 2011. It’s a public education tool aimed at educating residents on the correct use of wood heaters. Wood heaters have been banned in Dunlop and East O’Malley and in the Molonglo Valley (except the suburb of Wright). The ACT Government says the bans were imposed to protect public health. (Isn’t this the same reason residents repeatedly call to phase out or ban wood heaters in their neighbourhoods?) An Air Quality Assessment was conducted during planning for the new residential area of Molonglo and it found the area suffered the same weather inversions in winter as the Tuggeranong Valley. Based on this information the then ACT Environment Minister, Simon Corbell announced he would not permit the use of wood heaters in Molonglo to protect the public health. The ACT Government said it did not want the same pollution problems in Molonglo as experienced in Tuggeranong and other parts of Canberra. Mr Corbell said; “While the 2011 Air Quality Report highlights the excellent air quality in Canberra, annual monitoring has identified that smoke from domestic wood heaters is the most significant source of air pollution in Canberra.” But it appears the existing bans are not enforced. Some residents in Dunlop, where wood heaters were banned over 20-years ago, have reported on social media they continue to be affected by residential woodsmoke pollution despite buying properties in what is supposed to be a woodsmoke free suburb. While all these measures are welcome, they tinker around the edges, the source of the problem continues to be ignored and many Canberra neighbourhoods continue to suffer high levels of air pollution. In 2021 the ACT Government released its Bushfire Smoke and Air Quality Strategy. It identifies wood heaters as the major source of a complex mixture of hazardous pollutants in Canberra, and especially the Tuggeranong Valley. This is nothing new! Residents know it and it is proven in the science. As long ago as April 1991 the ACT Government’s own Standing Committee on Conservation, Heritage and Environment warned in its discussion paper, The Burning Question, “That a potential health risk of pollutant emissions by solid fuel heaters is intensified by their near ground level release from the suburban household chimney, and a lack of control existing over their contribution to fine particle pollution has implications for public health.” (Page 4). In the Fuelwood Heating Report released in September the same year the committee said, “It is clear to the committee that the extent of fuel wood heating in the ACT, coupled with poor heater operating practices and local weather conditions leads to significant levels of air pollution which causes physical discomfort for many residents, and in some cases, exacerbates health problems.” (Page 2). The Bushfire Smoke and Air Quality Strategy recommends further consultation, a review of current programs, an increase in air monitoring and strengthening existing measures. While any government recognition of this problem is welcome, how much longer are we going to continue to talk about it? The Strategy also lists a series of programs and measures we already know are not effectively addressing our largest single source of air pollution. On 28 July 2022 Australia voted in support of United Nations Resolution 76/300 that reaffirms the human right to a clean, healthy and sustainable enviroment. As such, responsibility to uphold our support for Resolution 76/300 also flows to all Australian states and territories, inlcuding the ACT.

WHAT HAVE OTHER CITIES AND TOWNS IN AUSTRALIA AND AROUND THE WORLD DONE?

In an effort to protect public health, many jurisdictions in Australia and around the world have banned or strictly limit the use of wood heaters. For example, Launceston Tasmania, which was identified by Dr Melita Keywood of the CSIRO along with Tuggeranong as Australia’s most heavily polluted residential area in winter, proposes to introduce a by-law that prevents the installation of new wood heaters in homes. The Launceston wood heater buyback scheme, which received federal funding, has already succeeded in encouraging three quarters of wood heater owners to switch to clean more efficient forms of heating. Several Sydney councils have banned the installation of wood heaters including Waverley and Holroyd local government areas. Other areas of Sydney require non-polluting heating in all new developments including Manooka Valley, Oran Park and Turner Road Growth Precincts. Montreal Canada has introduced strict laws on the use of wood heaters. Clean Air Zones have been introduced in the Canterbury District of New Zealand with the strict regulation of wood heaters. Christchurch has banned the use of open fires and wood heaters over 20-years old. In other areas of Otago, wood heaters with an emissions rating of more than 1-point-5g/kg were removed in 2012 and all new wood heaters must have an emissions rating of less than 0-point-7g/kg. California and Oregon banned all wood burning devices in new buildings and the burning of wood whenever pollution is forecast to exceed the air quality standard. Wood heaters and open fires were banned in Santiago Chile in 2017 where 718 deaths per year were attributed to air pollution.

HAVEN’T TECHNOLOGICAL ADVANCES MADE WOOD HEATERS MUCH CLEANER TODAY THAN THEY WERE IN THE PAST?

These claims can be disputed by experts who have found a wood heater is only as good as its user. It’s like driving the latest fuel efficient, clean and green car. If you fill it with the wrong fuel and drive it badly then it will pollute as much as any older model.  So, it has been found with wood heaters.  The CSIRO conducted a study on the real-life use of wood heaters in Launceston. The city had been the target of a long running Federally funded wood heater education campaign aimed at reducing air pollution. The study found little difference in emissions of new and old heaters. It reported (Section 5.1.1) “there is not a large distinction in emissions between compliant and non-compliant wood heaters.” If used as the main source of heating, even a new wood heater meeting all the latest Australian standards will emit as much PM2.5 as the exhaust emissions of 1,049 petrol cars, and an older model as much as the exhaust emissions of 1,613 petrol cars.

BUT WHAT ABOUT THE CANBERRAN’S WHO CAN ONLY AFFORD TO HEAT THEIR HOMES WITH WOOD?

To assist these residents, the ACT Government runs the Wood Heater Replacement Program. The program encourages residents to transfer to cheaper, cleaner and more efficient electric heating. Modern and efficient reverse cycle heat pumps are cheaper in the long run as firewood becomes scarce and more expensive. Recently the CSIRO reported a majority of wood heater owners’ self-collect firewood from rural properties and the bush rather than buying it from a commercial supplier. To further reduce their wood heating bills the CSIRO Survey found wood heater owners also burnt rubbish wood and timber. The Survey found that about a quarter of wood heater owners indicated that recycled wood and offcuts comprise at least a half of the wood used to fuel their wood heaters. This wood can contain oils, paints and other chemicals which only adds to the toxic cocktail already found in neighbourhood woodsmoke pollution.

WHAT IS CLEAN AIR CANBERRA CALLING ON THE ACT GOVERNMENT TO DO ABOUT RESIDENTIAL WOODSMOKE POLLUTION?

  1. Honour the 2020 Election promise to develop a health-base standard for wood heaters and implement measures to phase out wood heaters that do not meet that standard.
  2. Legislate that all wood heaters that do not meet a new health-base standard must be disposed of before a property in suburban Canberra can be sold. Offer the new buyers financial assistance to replace the wood heater with efficient electric heating.
  3. Establish a register of all exisiting wood heaters in suburban Canberra to determine how many there are, their age and if they meet any emission standard. This measure will assist the ACT Government to communicate with wood heater owners during education and wood heater buyback programs.
  4. Extend the prohibition on installing wood heaters that already exists in selected suburbs across all built up areas and new residential developments with the ACT. This measure does not apply to rural areas of the ACT.
  5. Implement a comprehensive education campaign to inform the community about the health risks, environmental damage and contribution to global warming caused by the burning of wood for domestic heating.
  6. Ultimately phase out wood burning for domestic heating in all built up areas of the ACT.

WHAT CAN I DO ABOUT WOODSMOKE POLLUTION?

There’s a lot you can do. Please visit our Get involved and Resources pages for information and ideas on what you can do to rid your neighbourhood of woodsmoke pollution and protect your health and that of your family and friends.  You can also support the push for cleaner air in Canberra by signing our petition.