“Wood heaters really punch above their weight when it comes to polluting the atmosphere. Any scheme that replaces wood heaters with less polluting forms of heating will pay for itself within a year and provide ongoing savings from the avoided additional disease and death associated with woodsmoke.” Professor Fay Johnston from the University of Tasmania in a recent Guardian article.
Many talk about the cost of wood heating in terms of saving a resident money on their annual heating bill. But as Johnston highlights, the hidden costs to all of us are significant.
In fact, the savings to our health care system could fully fund new heat pumps for every home that currently uses wood heating. We could also subsidize electrical bills for low income – and still have money left over. The air would be far cleaner, fewer people would be getting sick and there would be less of a burden on our health care system.
There are four studies from the last few years that have helped quantify the very real health care costs of wood stoves:
1. A study from the University of Tasmania’s Menzies Institute for Medical Research found that over 10 years, biomass smoke was linked to an estimated 69 deaths, 86 hospital admissions and 15 asthma Emergency Department visits in Tasmania each year, with more than 74% of these cases attributed to wood heater smoke. The study estimated that in Tasmania the average yearly health costs were $293 million for wood heater smoke. This translates into health costs equivalent to $4,232 per wood heater each year across the state.
2. An August 2021 study from Australia, The effects on mortality and the associated financial costs of wood heater pollution in a regional Australian city, put the cost even higher.
“Fourteen premature deaths (95% CI, 12–17 deaths) per year, corresponding to 210 (95% CI, 172–249) years of life lost, are attributable to long term exposure to wood heater PM2.5 pollution in Armidale. The estimated financial cost is $32.8 million (95% CI, $27.0–38.5 million), or $10 930 (95% CI, $9004–12 822) per wood heater per year.”
3. A March 2022 analysis by the European Public Health Alliance found that air pollution from wood burning in homes is responsible for more than £1 billion ($1.62 billion) a year in health-related damages in the UK and €10 billion ($13.63 billion) across the EU. (See “Home wood burning in UK causes £1bn of health costs a year, report says“)
4. Closer to home, a study from Metro Vancouver called “Health Impact Scale for Air Quality Improvements in the Canadian Lower Fraser Valley Airshed” (May 2019) noted that PM2.5 is the second most costly air pollutant (second only to the very uncommon Chromium VI). The study notes that the health impact scale per tonne of PM2.5 is $356,822.
The Metro Vancouver study states: “restriction on wood burning appliances is ranked the highest priority, with an annual valuation of about $438 million, based on the health impact scale.”
According to the 2015 emissions inventory from the Lower Fraser Valley, there were 5,237 tonnes of PM2.5 emitted in the year in that airshed, 1,685 tonnes of which came from residential wood burning (32%). When multiplied by the health impact scale for PM2.5 of $356,822 per tonne, the overall health impact scale works out to over $600 million per year from residential wood burning appliances in the Lower Fraser Valley airshed.
The same study looked at 10 example actions that could be taken to reduce harmful pollutants. Of the 10, the one with the greatest impact, by far, was “Restrictions on wood burning appliances”. This action was estimated to have more than 1.5 times the impact of all other 9 actions combined (see Table ES-4 on p. 5. Note that ECA means Emission Control Area).
Health Costs in the Comox Valley = $76 million a year
The 2015 emissions inventory for the Comox Valley estimated annual PM2.5 emissions from wood heating to be 212.8 tonnes. Applying the health impact scale from Metro Vancouver, this works out to almost $76 million, every year just in the Comox Valley.
And of course all of these health costs represent real people getting sick or, in some cases, dying. It represents their visits to the doctor, buying of medications, stays in the hospital and more.
For example, the Medical Health Officer for Island Health, Dr. Enns, has shared data that shows a spike in PM2.5 leads to a spike in inhaler prescriptions – so more people are experiencing asthma attacks and paying for the needed medication. And there was the McGill study done locally that showed a 19% increased risk of heart attacks in seniors after increases of PM2.5 for a few days, when that PM2.5 came from wood smoke. Other health studies highlight a vast range of impacts, such as increased risk of strokes, different cancers and dementia.
These are real people getting sick and missing work, school and other activities. So when we talk about the “affordability” of wood heating, it is critical that we include the discussion of the people paying the price, whether directly through their physical and emotional health or through their taxes (also see “The Affordability Challenge“).
The problem is very solvable; it is the political will to make significant changes to protect people’s health that is missing.
(article updated April 25, 2022 to include Study #3).