In a new study in the January 15, 2024 issue of the Medical Journal of Australia, researchers have found that as many as 63 premature deaths per year in the Australian Capital Territory can be linked to pollution from wood stoves.

The study’s conclusion notes:

The estimated annual number of deaths in the ACT attributable to wood heater PM2.5 pollution is similar to that attributed to the extreme smoke of the 2019–20 Black Summer bushfires. The number of wood heaters should be reduced by banning new installations and phasing out existing units in urban and suburban areas.

The researchers point out in the study that:

Domestic wood heaters are the predominant sources of particulate air pollution in the Australian Capital Territory, as in many other cities and towns in New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia, and Tasmania.

Their health impact is substantial: wood heater smoke is responsible for an estimated 269 premature deaths per year in the Sydney Greater Metropolitan Area and 65 deaths per year in Tasmania. This effect is larger than for other human sources of air pollution, including road traffic, industry, and power generation.

ABC News coverage

This new study is receiving national media attention throughout Australia.

In coverage by ABC, study coauthor Fay Johnston from the Menzies Institute for Medical Research said the results “showed policies to address wood heater use were urgently needed” not just in the ACT, but throughout the country.

She also noted that wood smoke “was a particularly dangerous form of air pollution because wood heaters burn wood under highly variable conditions” leading to more dangerous byproducts than from other air pollution sources.

Peter Irga, a lecturer at the University of Technology Sydney, commented to ABC:

Alarmingly, the estimated deaths and costs could in fact be underestimates, if you take into account the potential increased toxicity from PM2.5 derived from domestic wood heater smoke.

ABC Radio Melbourne also interviewed lead author Professor Sotiris Vardoulakis about the results of the study.

A phaseout to protect public health

In January 2023, the Office of the Commissioner for Sustainability and the Environment issued a report recommending the phaseout of wood heating in the ACT, finding that there is no safe level of air pollution, and that current wood heater policies do not protect the public from harm.

In response, the ACT government issued a plan to phase out wood heaters in the ACT suburbs by 2045.

In discussing the phaseout in August 2023, Environment Minister Rebecca Vassarotti stated:

I appreciate many Canberrans grew up with woodfired heaters and they offer nostalgic charm and comfort. However, we need to confront the reality that the smoke they emit is a direct source of pollution in our homes, a clear and present danger to the well-being of our community in urban and suburban areas, and a looming threat to our natural environment.

Reducing numbers of wood heaters is essential

These latest research findings provide yet more evidence supporting a phaseout of wood heaters in order to protect the public.

As the study’s authors note:

Modern wood heaters typically exceed current emission standards when used under real world conditions, suggesting that emission control standards are inadequate for protecting health. Further, public education about wood heater use alone does not efficiently improve local air quality. Reducing the number of wood heaters by not allowing new installations and phasing out existing units is essential for reducing particulate air pollution and its impact on health.

Note: This blog post originally appeared on our website after the study was first published online in late 2023. It has since been updated to include new information after the publication of the January 15, 2024 issue of the Medical Journal of Australia.

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