Call to rethink reliance on wood heating, as local doctor says smoke is harming health

A Sale doctor says if the findings of a Tasmanian study were applied to Gippsland, then it was possible an estimated 27 Gippslanders died each year as a result of exposure to wood heater smoke.
A Sale doctor says if the findings of a Tasmanian study were applied to Gippsland, then it was possible an estimated 27 Gippslanders died each year as a result of exposure to wood heater smoke.

A SALE doctor who says wood heaters can be as dangerous as passive smoking is calling for a combined government and industry approach to protect residents from air pollution.

Throughout Gippsland thousands of homes use wood heaters, with many in isolated areas relying on them as their only form of heating.

But local GP anaesthetist and Rural Doctors Association of Victoria president Rob Phair said it was a well-established fact domestic wood burning harmed health, and in particular the health of the most vulnerable community members - pregnant women, the very young, the very old, and people with underlying health problems.

"The bushfires of 2020-21, which resulted in an estimated 400-plus deaths in south-eastern Australia, drew more attention to the hazardous effects of wood smoke," Dr Phair said.

"Breathing in wood smoke is comparable to passive smoking.

"It contains fine particles called PM2.5 which are 40 times smaller than a grain of sand, and invisible to the human eye.

"They are so small that they can be inhaled deep into the respiratory system, cross into the bloodstream and move around the body, affecting every organ.

"Breathing in wood smoke and PM2.5 can worsen asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and is associated with heart attacks, strokes, dementia, diabetes, and premature death".

And according to the federal Health Department, some pollutants from wood heater smoke, such as particles and formaldehyde, are carcinogenic, with chronic exposure having the potential to cause certain cancers.

A study in Tasmania in 2020 found domestic wood heaters caused 51 deaths every year.

Dr Phair said the numbers were likely to be similar in Gippsland, meaning that 27 Gippslanders died every year because of wood heater pollution.

Despite the facts on the risks associated with wood heaters, domestic wood burning is effectively unregulated in Victoria and Australia.

In Gippsland, domestic wood burning has the biggest impact in towns such as Heyfield, which is in a valley, Orbost and Bairnsdale, and much less impact on big properties where the nearest neighbours live several kilometres away.

Along with the state government and Environment Protection Authority Victoria, local councils have responsibilities for protecting communities from environmental health hazards.

The Rural Doctors Association of Victoria is urging all levels of government to make tough decisions on wood heaters, just as smoking was banned in public places because of the health effects.

"It's a big challenge, but Gippslanders could rethink attitudes to wood heaters as well," Dr Phair said.

"Local and state governments could help by protecting residents (as they should), by monitoring air quality, and supporting change.

"There are much cleaner ways of heating homes which increasingly use renewable energy.

"I hope we can all work on ways of reducing the damage done by wood heaters to our community's health."

The rising cost of firewood is also making wood heating expensive and no longer a cheap option, Dr Phair said.

In the ACT, the Wood Heater Replacement Program provides an incentive for ACT residents to replace wood heaters or open fireplaces with energy-efficient reverse cycle air-conditioners, but last year the Victorian government ruled a buy-back scheme out, saying it was strengthening Victoria's environmental protections to give EPA more powers to prevent air pollution.

A study by the Environment Protection Authority in 2017 found an increase in days exceeding air quality standards was mostly attributed to urban sources, "such as wood fire heaters".

An EPA spokesman said while the impact of a single wood heater may be small, the cumulative impact on air quality, particularly through autumn and winter, was significant.

The authority recommends that householders understand how their heater operates, use appropriate fuel and have the heater cleaned and checked regularly to prevent unnecessary smoke.

It also advises never to burn household rubbish, driftwood, treated wood or painted wood, which can pollute the air and produce toxic gases.

The Firewood Association of Australia says as long as wood heater users operate their heaters responsibly and do not emit large amounts of smoke, there is no reason they can not be safely used.

Dr Phair has made a submission to the Victorian Parliamentary Inquiry into Health Impacts of air pollution.

The deadline for submissions was last week, and a final report is due to be presented to parliament in late August.

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