Environment

Should we be worried about arsenic in the air?

Almost one in 10 people burn waste wood at home

fire wood burning air pollution

Wood burning is a major emitter of emissions. (Image: Clay Banks/Unsplash)

Many people are likely aware of the effects of air pollution, which come from a range of sources: cars, industrial manufacturing, and wood burners.

Wood burners are increasingly popular in homes across the UK, partly due to the rising costs of gas and also partly because the idea of a wood burning stove is evocative of a sense of cosiness. 

The impact of wood burning on air quality and the environment is immense, though. The Department for Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs’ (Defra) Clean Air Strategy states that wood burning stove emissions is one of the biggest sources of particulate matter (also known as PM2.5) pollution in the UK.

But there is another concern when it comes to wood burning stoves: arsenic. 

Arsenic is a carcinogen and can be highly toxic to human health, causing cancer, developmental defects, diabetes, pulmonary disease, and cardiovascular disease. It is also associated with adverse pregnancy outcomes and infant mortality, according to the World Health Organisation.

Scientists tracking air quality at Imperial College London, the University of Birmingham, and the University of Manchester found arsenic particles in the air – particularly during the weekend of January 22 to 23, when air pollution was recorded at its highest

Dr James Allan from the University of Manchester’s air quality research site told The Big Issue: “The business of arsenic being present in the air was one of these things which didn’t come as a massive surprise to us. In the last 20 odd years, it’s become increasingly fashionable for people to use wood burning stoves.”

The arsenic found in the air is due to the burning of waste wood from construction sites or from household waste, such as fence panels, old furniture, doors, and pallets. Prior to 2006, when it was banned, preservatives used to treat wood in the UK often contained arsenic.

Allan explained: “Wood that is used in construction in particular is often treated with various chemicals to act as preservatives. Some of the older wood preservatives had arsenic in them. It’s obviously not good if we put in extra arsenic in the atmosphere but there’s also other potential toxins that could be there.”

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A survey released by Defra in 2020 showed 9 per cent of people who burned wood at home were burning waste wood. 

Allan said there isn’t conclusive evidence to link arsenic in the air to waste wood burning but it is an increasing concern among air quality scientists. He said: “It fits the theory as it happens at the same time as when you’d expect a lot of wood burning.”

Allan attributes the increase in arsenic in the air to a lack of awareness, an increase in demand for wood burning, and the cost of living crisis. 

Many people are unaware of the health effects of arsenic, nor do they know that some of the waste wood they use from the garden or the skip to burn has arsenic embedded in it. 

“There’s been more demand for the official wood to burn and that’s creating pressure. But, the other aspect is that, this last winter, people are under a lot of financial pressure too as they try to heat their homes so it’s possible more people are burning waste wood because it’s free fuel,” Allan added.

Though the government has tried to regulate the type of wood that’s used for burning and new planning guidance by the mayor of London has effectively banned wood burners in new and refurbished homes, it is still a problem.

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“You can’t control what people throw on the fire,” Allan said, suggesting that people may also be using waste wood due to the belief that it’s an environmentally friendly way of getting rid of the wood rather than sending it to landfill.

But the impact on the environment is much worse from burning wood: “Wood gives off a lot of smoke when it burns compared to a gas boiler. Wood is not a clean thing to burn.”

In January 2022, regulations stated all wood-burning stoves had to adhere to strict criterias around emissions and efficiency to ensure they would be contributing less particulate matter to the air. But,  Allan warned that this does not solve the problem.

He said: “There is a misconception by some that these new stoves are so wonderful and clean that they will get rid of all the toxins but that’s not the case. They might be cleaner but they are not completely clean – and they definitely don’t filter out any toxins.”

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