Wood and natural gas burning: how they affect air pollution
According to recent government data out of the UK, wood burning in homes produces more particulate pollution than all road traffic1. Countrywide, over 1.5 million people use wood as their main source of heat, and its popularity is growing. Wood burning has an enormous effect on our air quality, both indoor and outdoor, yet not a single municipality in the UK with a smoke control area had issued a fine for smoke pollution in the past five years1. The two problems seem to be both continuous and unregulated, affecting each and every one of us and the air that we breathe. Read on to discover more about how wood burning and natural gas heating contribute to air pollution and how it is up to us to protect ourselves.
The dangers of wood burning
When wood is used for heating in a home, particulate matter (PM, also known as fine particles) is released. Due to its small size, PM is known to be able to enter the body through the respiratory system – when they are breathed in by the lungs – and circulate quickly, efficiently making their way into the bloodstream where they are transported with ease to the heart, brain, and other organs. PM is known to cause negative health effects and early death. Read more about the dangers of PM here.
According to a national statistic in February 2023, wood burning’s popularity is skyrocketing, and a recent study has shown a staggering increase of its effects on air quality from 2011-2021. Emissions of PM2.5, for example, increased by a whopping 124% during this timeframe, making up 21% of total PM2.5 emissions in 20213. What is particularly concerning is that only 8% of homes have wood-burning stoves according to a survey of 50,000 homes.
Additionally, the type of wood used and the way we light fires can both significantly impact the amount of pollution produced. Dry wood produces a quarter of the amount of pollution as wet wood1. As we’ve learned from the Dieselgate scandal, the amount of air pollution is usually much more significant in the real world than in official tests.
The dangers of natural gas
Using the United States as an example, 96% of natural gas is used for heating2. Natural gas, while generally considered to be a “safe” form of energy, can have serious negative health effects. Natural gas appliances leak dangerous pollutants such as benzene and methane, even while the appliance is turned off. More significant natural gas leaks can have the following effects:
- A 25-30% gas-to-air ratio can cause ear ringing, euphoria, and behavioural changes
- A 50% gas-to-air ratio can incapacitate a person after a few breaths and make it impossible for them to self-rescue
- A 75% gas-to-air ratio will immediately incapacitate a person and death will occur within minutes4
As is the case for many renters across the globe, most American renters cannot choose the types of appliances in their rental spaces, meaning that their heating is almost always fossil fuel-based, particularly in low-income housing. This has led to coalitions of American renters monitoring and testing their indoor air quality. One particular renter was shocked to find double the level of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) advised by the Environmental Protection Agency per one hour of exposure in her kitchen – 220 parts per billion (ppb)2! This has encouraged many American renters to find alternative ways to cook and heat their homes, and New York City passed a law in 2021 banning the use of natural gas in all new construction. Starting in 2024, buildings higher than 7 stories will be fully electric. A recent study found that 12.7% cases of childhood asthma in the US is caused by exposure to gas stoves2.
Natural gas is not only dangerous in the case of a leak, however. While the emissions produced by natural gas are less than that of coal or oil (50-60% less when produced in a new power plant), it is not only the emissions released by the smokestacks and tailpipes that should concern us. First of all, the extraction and transportation of natural gas leaks methane, a gas that is 34 times stronger than CO2 at trapping heat over a 100-year period. Furthermore, when natural gas is burned in vehicles or for cooking and/or heating in homes, the amount of methane leaked must be kept below 1-1.6% - usually between 1-9% of methane is leaked - in order to have less of an impact on global warming than diesel and petrol. Lest we not forget that natural gas is a fossil fuel, and it has great potential to contribute to climate change5.
How can we protect ourselves?
Switching to cleaner forms of fuel for cooking and heating is by far the best option available. Electric heaters and stoves produce no particle pollution whatsoever. If you are left without a choice regarding the type of fuel used in your home or office, ventilation is crucial. Make sure to regularly open windows and doors to allow fresh air to circulate and polluted air to vacate.
Unfortunately, the above suggestions are not always feasible for everyone. Switching your fuel type and appliances may not be your jurisdiction, especially if you live in a rental property. Furthermore, if you are able to switch your fuel type but the electricity you consume is produced by fossil fuels, then you are still contributing to air pollution. Ventilation is also not always a possibility due to safety concerns, outdoor noise levels, extreme outdoor temperatures, and/or high levels of outdoor pollution – in the case of the latter, ventilation may actually do you more harm than good. Your best line of defence, then, is to equip your home and office with an air purifier.
Eoleaf’s air purifiers offer some of the most advanced filtration technologies on today’s market, including HEPA-certified filters, activated carbon filters, and UV sterilisation. They can filter out all particles down to PM0.1, germs (bacteria and viruses), moulds and spores, and allergens (pollen, dust mites, and pet dander).
Take back control of the air you breathe by reaching out to our team of air filtration experts today. Start breathing cleaner air in your home or office with an Eoleaf air purifier.
1 Whitty, C. (2022, December 8). 'eco' wood burners produce 450 times more pollution than gas heating – report. The Guardian. Retrieved February 15, 2023, from https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2022/dec/08/eco-wood-burners-produce-450-times-more-pollution-than-gas-heating-report
2 Uteuova, A. (2023, January 27). US renters have growing worries over gas stoves – and few options. The Guardian. Retrieved February 15, 2023, from https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2023/jan/27/gas-stove-us-renters-reaction-pollution
3 Emissions of air pollutants in the UK – particulate matter (PM10 and PM2.5). GOV.UK. (2023, February 14). Retrieved February 15, 2023, from https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/emissions-of-air-pollutants/emissions-of-air-pollutants-in-the-uk-particulate-matter-pm10-and-pm25
4 Hazards of natural gas. Pinedale Gas. (2016). Retrieved February 15, 2023, from https://pinedalegas.com/natural-gas/hazards-of-natural-gas
5 Environmental impacts of natural gas. Union of Concerned Scientists. (2014, June 19). Retrieved February 24, 2023, from https://www.ucsusa.org/resources/environmental-impacts-natural-gas