Updated Feb 17, 2021

Domestic wood burning single biggest source of particulate pollution in the UK

A recent study carried out by DEFRA shows that domestic burning of wood in stoves and fireplaces is the biggest source of particulate matter (PM) pollution in the UK.

The study covered emissions from industrial processes, road transport, manufacturing, domestic combustion and other sources. Since 1970 the amount of PM10 and PM2.5 in the air had reduced dramatically due to the reduction in the burning of coal, the introduction of emission standards for transport and the industrial processes, as well as improved efficiency of combustion systems and filtering.

However, due to the increasing popularity of wood burners in homes, the domestic burning of wood accounts for 28% of PM10 and 43% of PM2.5 emissions in the UK.

Emissions of PM2.5 from domestic wood burning more than doubled between 2003 and 2019 (from 20,000 to 41,000 tonnes) and increased by 1% between 2018 and 2019. A separate report also found that almost half of those burning indoors were affluent, had other heat sources, such as gas boilers, and were burning fires for aesthetic reasons rather than heat.

PM pollution is hazardous to health due to the very small size, as it has the ability to enter the bloodstream and travel around the body, where it could lodge in the heart, brain or other organs, which could have some serious health effects. Wood burners also significantly increase the indoor PM pollution, and some argue that log burners, stoves and fireplaces should be sold with a health warning.

The research identified the main reasons for use of indoor burners in domestic properties:

  • aesthetic reasons or as a "lifestyle choice" - this accounted for the majority of people burning fires;
  • traditional reasons - accounted for around 18%;
  • older, less affluent and living in more rural areas;
  • have no other heating source;
  • burning to save money or supplement other sources of heating.

Gary Fuller of Imperial College London and the member of the government's air quality group said: "We have 8% of UK homes that are responsible for about 40% of PM2.5 pollution."

"Wood burning in homes has crept up under the radar while we all focused our attention on diesel traffic. We can count cars and lorries on our roads to understand the pollution that comes from traffic. But we have very little idea of what people are doing in their own homes and hence the importance of this survey.”

"One of the ways to tackle wood burning is to get more information out to people, as they have in New Zealand, to encourage people to burn their wood better. We have to engage and the starting point is to know who is burning wood and why they are doing so, and that is what this survey does."