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Smoke Pollution: A Call for Immediate Remedial Action

During the current respiratory pandemic, we all take responsibility for protecting ourselves, as advised by the Government, scientists and medical professionals. But there is one thing we have no control over: the air we breathe.

 

It is a well-established fact that England has a problem with air pollution, as confirmed by the Department of Health in their Clean Air Strategy 2020

 

We hear a lot about diesel pollution, but in fact it is domestic wood and coal burning that are the highest sources of air pollution from the most dangerous particulates (PM2.5). Contrary to the image often portrayed, burning wood is not carbon neutral as some claim as it releases stored carbon at burning, and suppliers cut down hundreds of thousands of trees every week to provide the wood used for fuel.

 

 

 

See the full-sized image here.

 

The explosion of woodstove sales took off in 2014 when the Government implemented the Renewable Heating Incentive Scheme (RHIS). Woodstoves became a 'must have' accessory and the industry cashed in high profits. At a cost of anything between £2,500 – £6,000 these are often state of the art focal points in the homes of those who can afford them, although woodstoves in off-grid areas and outside smoke control zones have their place. 

 

The Kings College London (KCL) estimates that there are now over 1.5m woodstoves around the country, most of which are in the South East. The Government estimates that around 2.5 million homes use solid fuel fires or stoves.

 

Research led by leading pollution scientist Dr Gary Fuller OF Kings College London (KCL) found that wood burned in stoves gives off six times as much pollution as a diesel truck, and causes the most harmful type of air pollution linked to heart attacks, strokes, cancer and dementia.  Particles linger in the air for a very long time and mutate into even more serious toxic compounds. Naima Bradley, Head of Environmental Hazards at Public Health England, said that "there is no level at which particulate air pollution is harmless".

 

In spite of the evidence, and a very substantial body of media coverage, the Government has failed to take action to protect citizens. The Clean Air Strategy 2020 admits that domestic solid fuel burning is the greatest source of PM2.5 pollution in the country but fails to implement the necesary measures to tackle it. More recently, in March 2020, MPs voted against an amendment to the Environmental Bill 2018 that would enshrine the World Health Organisation's guideline for PM2.5 in law (see also here).

 

A further largely unrecognised source of dangerous air pollution is smoke from bonfires. These are regulated by The Environment Protection Act 1990 which states that bonfires can constitute a Statutory Nuisance, but that has to be proven by those exposed to it under extremely onerous conditions. These include a log of incident time, duration, frequency, and impact on the use of your property and personal comfort, all of which have to be submitted to the local council to assess whether action is warranted. The fire must also be witnessed by a local council official.

 

This approach is completely out of step with our current medical and scientific knowledge on harm to health, including respiratory complications, stroke, heart attacks, cancer. Wood smoke is a silent killer, with KCL estimating that air pollution causes 38,000 hospitals admissions in the UK every year. The current legislation on bonfires is completely indefensible and fails to protect our health and lives. 

 

The Corona virus pandemic has shocked us all with so many deaths at the same time from the respiratory illness it often triggers. Yet thousands die in the course of a normal year from respiratory disease triggered by an entirely preventible cause. Government must act now to immediately enshrine in law a ban on bonfires in all smoke control areas, and immediately suspend the use of woodstoves in all smoke control areas along with immediate work to strengthen Clean Air Act 2019 measures and bringing forward implementation.  

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