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Smoke from wood heaters could be contributing to excess deaths

There are few things better than cosying up next to a wood fire in winter, but Aussie researchers are calling for better public health education and policy after a study found excess deaths associated with our woody winter warmers. The team looked at the population of Armidale, NSW and found 14 premature deaths in the region each year were attributable to air pollution from wood heaters.  Other adverse health outcomes included premature birth, lower birthweight, stroke, neurodegenerative disease, diabetes, deep vein thrombosis and heart and lung disease. Exposure to air pollution could also affect the transmission and severity of COVID-19, the team added, saying policies are needed to reduce the pollution of wood heaters, including education supported by health professionals.

Journal/conference: MJA

Link to research (DOI): 10.5694/mja2.51199

Organisation/s: The University of New England, The University of Sydney, Menzies Institute for Medical Research, University of Tasmania

Media release

From: Medical Journal of Australia (MJA)

14 EXCESS DEATHS PER YEAR ATTRIBUTED TO WOOD HEATER POLLUTION IN REGIONAL CITY OF 25 000

EXCESS deaths due to air pollution from wood heaters have led to a call for more effective policies, public health education, and subsidies to encourage the switch to efficient, less polluting home heating, in research published by the Medical Journal of Australia.

The study, conducted in Armidale, a regional NSW city of 24 504 people, found 14 premature deaths per year were attributable to air pollution from wood heaters. This corresponds to 210 lost years of life, and, longer term, to the loss of 364 days of life expectancy at birth, at an estimated cost of $10 930 per heater per year.

The researchers, led by Dr Dorothy Robinson, Adjunct Senior Research Fellow at the University of New England, conducted a health impact assessment (excess annual mortality and financial costs) based upon atmospheric PM2.5 (particulate matter less than 2.5 μm aerodynamic diameter) measurements, between 1 May 2018 and 30 April 2019.

“We defined two time periods by examining the data: the wood heater pollution period and a background period not usually affected by wood smoke,” Robinson and colleagues wrote.

“Mean daily population weighted PM25 exposure was 3.1 µg/m3 during the background period and 18.8 µg/m3 during the wood heater pollution period; the mean daily population-weighted wood smoke PM2.5 exposure for the wood heater pollution period was 15.6 µg/m3.

“Our analysis of the health effects of wood heaters was restricted to the risk of premature death. Other adverse health outcomes of air pollution include premature birth, lower birthweight, stroke, neurodegenerative disease, diabetes, deep venous thrombosis, and cardiovascular and lung disease,” they wrote.

“Both short and long term exposure to air pollution may be important aggravating factors for COVID-19 transmission, severity, and lethality.

“Effective policies are needed to reduce wood heater pollution, including public education supported by health professionals about the effects on health of wood smoke, subsidies that encourage residents to switch to efficient, less polluting home heating (perhaps as part of an economic recovery package), and regulatory changes,” Robinson and colleagues concluded.

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