Wood Smoke Stories

Smoke pollution in Austria

Around a decade ago I moved to the outskirts of a mid-sized town in Austria, where everyone seems to be concerned about cleanliness and health. Everywhere you look is spot-on, people are eating bio products, doing sport, and visiting the thermal baths. “Gesundheit” (health) is discussed in every newspaper and magazine issue. What a disappointment.

Soon I discovered Austrians love wood and they have now been brainwashed that burning wood is eco-friendly because it is CO2 neutral (as trees absorb it). Chimney sweeper “Masters” are still very respected and make loads of money. It’s madness.

Many people still heat using wood, people building new houses always add an expensive “Russian oven,” pellet ovens have been the norm in the past and are still in trend, and district heating consists of burning trees from local forests. The end result is that the air quality of a beautiful mid-size town in Austria full of independent houses is much worse than in many urban areas I have lived before, 10 to 100 times in size, with 9 story buildings, and 6-lane streets. How ironic!

In our particular case, our neighbors opposite are using a small kitchen heater and burning wood briquettes to save money, as their house has electric heating and they refuse to upgrade it. Word-of-mouth among neighbors says they are also burning the plastic wraps from the wood briquettes and anything else they can find.

To make it worse, the chimney top is lower than our house (is that even legal?), and the air flow is so poor that often the smoke goes downwards to the street instead of upwards.

I installed a meter in our garden and PM2.5 levels have reached 700 μg/m3 some days, and VOC 100. We can’t open the windows or get out in the garden during the whole winter and even though other neighbors are also affected, no one seems to care enough.

Whenever I raise the topic of wood burning, everyone ignores it and does not even believe the numbers (that in many areas of Austria are higher than in Chinese cities). Even with the numbers there, they don’t care, as Austrians love wood.

I am seriously considering moving somewhere else, even back to a city.

A screenshot of a PM2.5 sensor reading showing a very high level of 431 micrograms per cubic meter. It says this is an average level for the period between January 15 to January 21st.