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Where there’s fire, there’s smoke

Air quality has been in the spotlight of late as the Senate Inquiry into the impacts of air pollution on health in Australia came under way. The submissions and transcript show the inquiry concentrated on dust from coal mining in the Hunter. However, some raised issues closer to home for Artarmon, such as vehicle exhausts and smoke from home wood heaters.

The NSW Environment Protection Authority (EPA)’s air emissions inventory shows harmful emissions on the decline in the Sydney region, thanks to tighter vehicle standards and industry regulation and industry movement out of the city. However, vehicle and industry pollution still demand attention, as do other pollutants that are not so closely regulated. A timely one as winter descends is wood heaters.

The emissions inventory reveals burning home fires account for more than 50% of the fine particle (PM2.5) emissions human activities generate yearly in the Sydney region – and a much higher rate on cold winter weekends.

Particles are linked to a range of respiratory and cardio-vascular effects that can lead to hospitalisations and even deaths. The NSW Department of Health warns long-term exposure can cause heart and lung disease, while brief exposures can aggravate asthma or worsen pre-existing heart conditions. Particle pollution affects children the most, also the elderly and people with existing medical conditions.

The emissions inventory shows Willoughby Council residents overall are not high users of wood heaters but wood smoke can be a very localised issue. The CSIRO submission to the Senate Inquiry listed wood smoke as a concern for air quality in urban and regional Australia, especially in valleys.

The Clean Air Society of Australia and NZ raised specific concerns. A single high-emitting or poorly operated wood heater could be a significant polluter.

Several websites advise on how to avoid excessive emissions from wood heaters. The health department fact sheet on wood smoke states: “If you use a wood-burning heater, ensure it conforms to Australian Standards, is properly installed and that you operate it correctly.”

Tips from NSW Health and the EPA include:

  • Check your wood-burning heater conforms to the Australian Standard (AS/NZS 4013:1999) and that the heater and chimney are installed in line with any council-specific building requirements.
  • Burn only dry, well-seasoned and chemically untreated wood.
  • Adjust the air damper on the wood-burning heater to allow sufficient airflow to provide oxygen for clean combustion.
  • Ensure fresh air enters the room to prevent carbon monoxide build up.
  • Make sure the fire burns brightly to ensure enough heat for complete combustion.
  • Never leave a fire smouldering overnight.
  • Check your chimney – if there is visible smoke from it, increase the airflow to the fire
  • Arrange for regular cleaning of the chimney.

It is an offence for a chimney to emit excessive smoke and local councils have authority to issue smoke abatement notices. Council officers generally discuss means to reduce the smoke with the householder before issuing such a notice.

The EPA provides more detailed “dos and don’ts” for operating wood heaters at The website also offers suggestions on reducing your heating needs and considering alternative heating choices, at It recommends residents take a “package approach” to home heating.

by Alethea Morison

Courtesy of Gazette May 2013
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