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Don't underestimate the health dangers of wood smoke

Australians with respiratory conditions like asthma are being reminded not to be complacent about the impacts of smoke produced by domestic wood heaters, on their ability to breathe.

Michele Goldman, CEO of Asthma Australia said people often underestimate how dangerous wood smoke can be and how it can affect their health.

“The toxins, gases and fine particulate matter produced by burning wood are a major risk factor for anyone with an underlying respiratory or cardiovascular condition,” said Ms Goldman.

“Children and older people, especially those with respiratory conditions such as asthma, are at highest risk but the impact of air pollution on healthy adults is also well documented.”

Despite being used by less than 5% of households in Sydney as their main form of heating, residential wood heating is responsible for more than 50% of fine particulate matter (PM2.5) emissions in Sydney during Winter. In comparison, emissions from road traffic account for 14.4% of PM2.5.

“There is a perception that wood heating is the natural way to heat your home and that drawing on a practice which has been undertaken for thousands of years must be safe,” said Ms Goldman.

“However, a 2013 study in Europe produced conclusive scientific proof that there are no safe levels of PM2.5. The study found a cancer risk at every level and confirmed that the higher the level, the greater the risk.‚Äč 

“What’s more, wood burning heaters not only pose a risk to those inside the home, they are also a significant risk to those in surrounding areas including neighbours and passers-by. These people may choose to not use a wood heater in their home because of concerns regarding risks to their health, however, due to their proximity to others using wood heaters, their health is still potentially impacted.

 “We strongly urge consumers to think about their heating choices. Ideally, switch to other forms of heating which do not produce dangerous smoke or if you have to rely on a wood-fired heating system, follow safe practices as outlined by the EPA,” concluded Ms Goldman. 

Protecting those with asthma from the potential dangers of wood smoke inhalation

As the size of particulate matter generated by wood heaters is very fine, measures to reduce the infiltration of wood smoke into homes, such as closing door or windows, is not expected to have a significant impact. For this reason, the recommendations from Asthma Australia focus more on proactive management of asthma and preparation for an asthma first aid emergency.

  • People with asthma should carry their reliever puffer with them at all times.
  • Ensure they have an up-to-date asthma action plan and make sure they know how to follow it if symptoms are worsening.
  • Know the asthma first aid steps in the event of an asthma flare up.
  • If residing in an area of high wood burning activity, minimise outdoor physical activity.
  • If using an air conditioner at home or in the car, set it to ‘recycle’.
  • Minimise exposure to other irritants such as cigarette smoke and dust.



1.        Air pollution and lung cancer incidence in 17 European cohorts: prospective analyses from the European Study of Cohorts for Air Pollution Effects (ESCAPE), The Lancet Oncology, Early Online Publication, 10 July 2013


Watch the interview about the dangers of wood smoke on Sunrise here 

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