The Real Costs of Wood Burning

The perceived lower cost of heating with wood is often cited as a reason to tolerate its use. However, it’s necessary to look at the larger picture. Wood burning isn’t a bargain when increased medical expenses and costs from lost productivity due to illness and premature death are included in the analysis.


A burning Australian banknoteThe World Health Organization estimates that roughly 4 million people worldwide die prematurely each year from diseases caused by the domestic burning of biomass, including wood. While the situation in developing countries, where people often cook over open fires in their homes, is more dire, wood burning is nonetheless becoming a major public health concern in the developed world as well.


Wood Burning Increases Medical Costs

Misguided beliefs that wood burning is better for the environment and a desire for lower heating costs have helped lead to growing levels of toxic air pollution in developed countries and, along with it, increased levels of environmentally-caused illness and premature death.


In Denmark, pollution from wood burning now contributes approximately 50% “of all health damages from Danish pollution sources” according to a 2016 report by the Danish Ecological Council. The Danish Centre for Environment and Energy at Aarhus University has estimated that wood stoves cost that country 5.7 billion kroner annually (approximately US$800 million) in annual air pollution-related costs. It was proposed that a tax on wood-burning stoves, based upon the amount they are used, could save 300 lives a year. According to the Danish Ecological Council, pollution from wood burning is now “the most health damaging and expensive environmental problem in Denmark,” causing several times more harm than fine particles from domestic road traffic.


In New South Wales Australia, it has been estimated that pollution from wood heating will cost that region AU$8.1 billion in increased medical costs over the next 20 years.


A study of the New South Wales town of Armidale concluded that 38% of respiratory-related  visits to primary care doctors were directly attributable to wood smoke-related pollution, adding an extra $1,666 daily in medical costs. The study concluded that “there is a need in rural towns to consider the health impacts of planning decisions related to wood heating.” Another study suggested that wood stoves increase annual mortality in Armidale by approximately 7%, with an estimated hidden cost of about AU$4,270 per wood stove each year.


A New Zealand study in 2005 concluded that wood smoke pollution cost the city of Christchurch alone an added NZ$127 million in medical costs.


A 2013 review in the Lancet estimated that, in the US alone, a mean reduction in PM2.5 of only 3.9 μg/m3 would prevent 7,978 heart failure hospitalizations and save a third of a billion dollars a year.


An analysis in Austria estimated that if light heating oil is replaced with more wood burning, air pollution levels will rise, along with an increase in hospital admissions and premature deaths.Photo of a burning 50 Euro noteExcess Premature Deaths Predicted

An analysis in Austria estimated that if light heating oil is replaced with more wood burning, air pollution levels will rise, along with an increase in hospital admissions and premature deaths. It was also noted that localized pollution in mountainous valleys will become especially high.


Increased Illness and Death

In the city of Thessaloniiki, Greece, use of wood heating rose dramatically during that country's economic crisis, causing a large spike in wood-associated particulate air pollution. It was estimated that the switch to wood heating from fuel oil resulted in 200 excess deaths, or 3540 years of life lost, corresponding to an economic cost of almost €200 – 250 million.


The majority of increased illnesses during the winter of increased wood burning were cases of chronic bronchitis, along with additional new cases of cardiovascular disease and other respiratory problems, at a monetary cost of €30 million.


An analysis of the data suggested “significant public health and monetary benefits (up to €2 billion in avoided mortality and €130 million in avoided illness) might be obtained” by limiting the burning of wood and other biomass. Providing incentives so that people can transition to cleaner heating options and away from wood was strongly advised, in order to avoid more excess deaths and avoidable illnesses.


Photo of a burning $100 billAnd More Medical Costs

A  study from 2001–2003 by the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District in California estimated that excess illnesses caused by residential wood burning resulted in an added $11 million to $26.6 million annually in medical expenses in the Fresno/Clovis area and an added $5.7 million to $14.1 million in the city of Bakersfield. (The lower figures reflect restrictions on burning that were implemented during the course of the study.) Added expenses from premature deaths caused by residential wood burning were estimated to cost up to $430.6 million when there were no limits on wood burning in Fresno/Clovis and up to $239.9 million in the city of Bakersfield.


The study’s authors noted, “Wood burners as well as the general public must understand that these localized spikes in wood smoke inhalation create an unjustifiable concentration of risk, particularly to vulnerable groups such as elders and children, i.e. environmental injustice. Furthermore, the public and those most vulnerable would benefit from a greater public recognition of the particularly harmful effects triggered by the various chemical species found in wood smoke.”


Over 20 years ago, it was estimated that wood burning cost the San Francisco Bay Area region $1.1 billion annually in health-related expenses, based on research compiled for the Bay Area Air Quality Management District (a summary of the findings is available here).


When the added health and environmental costs are included, wood burning isn’t much of a bargain.


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