The perceived lower cost of heating with wood is often cited as a reason to tolerate its use. However, when we look at the whole picture, it is clear that the price of wood heating is actually quite high.
Air pollution is expensive
When air pollution levels rise, even by a small amount, health-related costs go up.
For example, US researchers have estimated that a nationwide reduction of only 1μg/m3 in PM2.5 would reduce costs related to asthma by nearly $350 million annually.
A 2013 review in the Lancet estimated that a mean reduction in PM2.5 of 3.9 μg/m3 in the US would prevent 7,978 heart failure hospitalizations and save a third of a billion dollars a year.
The authors of a 2021 study that linked indoor solid fuel burning in Ireland with reduced cognitive function, noted “The costs of dementia, which include direct medical costs, social care costs, and the costs of informal care, are very large.” They pointed out that the worldwide dementia cost was 1.1% of World GDP in 2015, and likely rising. “Thus, public health policy should aim to reduce exposure to risk factors such as open fires in the home.”
“A catastrophic downward spiral”
In testimony to the Multnomah County (Oregon) Board of Commissioners in 2022, pulmonologist Dr. Erika Moseson described how wood smoke pollution can cause a “catastrophic downward spiral” for patients’ health and financial wellbeing, leading to greater costs for the whole community.
When people can’t breathe, they can’t go to work or to school. Students fall behind academically, potentially affecting their future earning ability. Workers without paid sick leave lose wages while being faced with growing medical expenses.
“Whatever dollars we invest in clear air,” Dr. Moseson said, “will have a beautiful magnifying effect on our health and economic productivity, both for the individual and the entire community.”
Large health costs in Canada
A 2019 report prepared for Metro Vancouver, Health Impact Scale for Air Quality Improvements in the Canadian Lower Fraser Valley Airshed, ranked the restriction of wood-burning appliances as the “highest priority,” with an estimated C$438M each year in potential health-related savings.
In Canada as a whole, an official government report issued in 2023 estimated that illnesses and premature deaths due to residential wood burning cost the country C$18 billion annually, far more than from any other pollution sector that was analyzed.
Economic impacts in Australia and New Zealand
A study of the New South Wales town of Armidale that was published in 2007 concluded that 38% of respiratory-related visits to primary care doctors were directly attributable to wood smoke-related pollution, adding an extra A$1,666 daily in medical costs.
The study concluded that “there is a need in rural towns to consider the health impacts of planning decisions related to wood heating.”
Another study that was published the same year suggested that wood stoves increase annual mortality in Armidale by approximately 7%, with an estimated hidden cost of about A$4,270 per wood stove each year.
A more recent study that was published in the Medical Journal of Australia in 2021, found that wood heating increased medical costs in the town of Armidale by an average of A$32.8 million, or A$10,930 per stove.
A 2023 NSW government report estimated that wood stoves contribute to 269 premature deaths each year in the greater Sydney metropolitan region, and add an estimated A$2 billion extra annually in costs to the region’s health system.
A New Zealand study found that wood smoke pollution cost the city of Christchurch alone an added NZ$127 million in increased health-related costs just in 2001.
According to Australian researcher Dr. Fay Johnston, “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 wood smoke.”
Wood burning costs EU and UK billions
In 2022, researchers found that wood-burning appliances are a major source of air pollution in the European Union and UK, increasing health-related costs by €13 billion each year (PDF).
In an article about the study in New Scientist, it was pointed out that “burning wood has high health costs relative to the energy it generates.”
Huge air pollution-related costs in Denmark
The Danish Centre for Environment and Energy at Aarhus University has estimated that wood stoves cost that country 5.7 billion kroner annually (approximately US$840 million) in annual air pollution-related costs.
It was proposed that a tax on wood stoves, based upon the amount they are used, could save 300 lives a year.
According to Green Transition Denmark, pollution from wood burning is the country’s most health-damaging and expensive environmental problem (PDF).
More wood burning, more illnesses and deaths
In the city of Thessaloniiki, Greece, use of wood heating rose dramatically during that country’s economic crisis, causing a large spike in wood-associated particulate air pollution.
It was estimated that the switch to wood heating from fuel oil resulted in 200 excess deaths, or 3,540 years of life lost, corresponding to an economic cost of almost €200–250 million.
The majority of increased illnesses during the winter of increased wood burning were cases of chronic bronchitis, along with additional new cases of cardiovascular disease and other respiratory problems, at a monetary cost of €30 million.
An analysis of the data suggested “significant public health and monetary benefits (up to €2 billion in avoided mortality and €130 million in avoided illness) might be obtained” by limiting the burning of wood and other biomass.
Providing incentives so that people can transition to cleaner heating options and away from wood was strongly advised, in order to avoid more excess deaths and avoidable illnesses.
And more medical costs
A study from 2001–2003 by the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District in California estimated that excess illnesses caused by residential wood burning resulted in an added $11 million to $26.6 million annually in medical expenses in the Fresno/Clovis area and an added $5.7 million to $14.1 million in the city of Bakersfield. (The lower figures reflect restrictions on burning that were implemented during the course of the study.)
Added expenses from premature deaths caused by residential wood burning (PDF) were estimated to cost up to $430.6 million when there were no limits on wood burning in Fresno/Clovis and up to $239.9 million in the city of Bakersfield.
The study’s authors noted:
Wood burners as well as the general public must understand that these localized spikes in wood smoke inhalation create an unjustifiable concentration of risk, particularly to vulnerable groups such as elders and children, i.e. environmental injustice. Furthermore, the public and those most vulnerable would benefit from a greater public recognition of the particularly harmful effects triggered by the various chemical species found in wood smoke.
Other financial burdens for neighbors
Neighbors of wood-burning households often spend large sums of money trying to protect the health of their families and cope with the smoke.
Common costs not only include extra medications and medical bills, but also HEPA air purifiers and the energy to run them, air pollution monitors, and house modifications in an attempt to limit how much smoke gets in.
Ultimately, some families are driven from their homes and also have moving expenses.
Rural and low-income communities
These added financial burdens can fall on neighbors who struggle to afford them, if they can afford these added expenses at all.
It has been pointed out that residents of rural and low-income communities are more likely to suffer health effects due to wood smoke pollution due to their greater exposure.
Wood burning is not a bargain
When all the costs are considered, wood burning is clearly no bargain.