Wood burning stoves – pollution today and in history

Wood burning stoves or coal fires, it can be a toxic way to keep warm

Wood burning stoves are a Must Have in interior design these days. House-hunters in property programmes on television all want them (along with an ‘island’ in the kitchen).

According to this 2016 article, 175,000 are installed each year in the UK. The article also says: “If you live in an urban area that is smoke-controlled, you’ll need to check the stove you are buying is approved by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) or go for one that has the option of burning smokeless fuels as an alternative.”

And there, as Shakespeare has it, is the rub.

Because some people seem to think they can burn any old rubbish in their hearths or stoves. A friend who suffers from asthma has a neighbour whose chimney belches smoke in winter. And walking the dog recently, I passed a house that was doing the same.

My lungs are fine, but the weather conditions were causing the smoke to sink and spread across the road, and I was soon coughing and rushing to get away from it.

wood burning stoves
Domestic fires can release all sorts into the atmosphere

Uncontrolled burning of waste releases all sorts of nasties into the atmosphere, including dioxins. There’s a reason why commercial waste incinerators, and crematoria, have to abide by strict regulations, such as the European Union’s Waste Incineration Directive. And why their (chimney) stacks are lined with scrubbers, to stop hazardous gases and particulates being released into the sky.

People chucking any old stuff in their grate are unlikely to be aware of any of this. Though if the householders had gone outside the other day, they may have noticed something!

My friend and I aren’t the only ones to have noticed. London mayor Sadiq Khan wants restrictions on them.  The article says It is estimated that between a quarter and a third of all of London’s fine-particle pollution comes from domestic wood burning.

And here is the historical bit!

The Great Smog of 1952

From December 5-9,1952, the city of London was brought to a standstill by a dense blanket of toxic smog that reduced visibility to a few feet. Wood burning stoves weren’t a fashion trend then: every home had open fires, fuelled primarily by coal, which gave off sulphurous fumes. Added to this were vehicle exhaust and power plant fumes. Foggy weather conditions for those few days trapped the pollution into a dreadful smog which blocked out the sun. People could barely see a yard/metre in front of them, public transport ground to a halt. And the toll on health was terrible.

By the time the weather changed, and winds swept away the fumes, the death toll was (according to some experts) more than 12,000 people, with 150,000 hospitalised. Thousands of animals also died.

The disaster led to legislation such as the City of London (Various Powers) Act of 1954 and the Clean Air Acts of 1956 and 1968. These acts banned emissions of black smoke and decreed that residents of urban areas and operators of factories must convert to smokeless fuels.

You can see a witness account of The Great Smog at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/av/stories-42357608/death-by-smog-london-s-fatal-four-day-pea-souper

You can read more on The Great Smog at: