How one German village exemplifies the cancer risk from wood burning

02 04 2024 | 13:39Gary Fuller / THE GUARDIAN

Residential heating with wood or coal can lead to significant air pollution, even in rural communities, researchers say

In autumn 2018, a shipping container full of air pollution measurement equipment arrived in the centre of the small German village of Melpitz.

Dr Dominik van Pinxteren of the Leibniz Institute for Tropospheric Research explained the reason for their investigation: “We were concerned that wood burning could be an important source of particle pollution in small villages, but these areas are not adequately covered by official air quality monitoring networks.”

Located in Saxony and surrounded by agricultural land and pasture, Melpitz is home to about 200 people. They live in 63 houses, mostly heated by oil or wood central heating, with a small number of homes using coal.

The researchers found that wintertime particle pollution in the village was often double that in the nearby fields. The air was worst at the weekends when smoke from stoves added to the pollution mixture. For the villagers, the risk from the extra particle pollution was estimated to be half as high as their risk of death in a traffic accident.

The air in Melpitz contained cancer-causing polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, which are persistent pollutants in wood and coal smoke. The cancer risk from these exposures was similar to that in major European cities, including Athens and Florence.

Van Pinxteren said the findings were significant: “Residential heating with wood can lead to significant pollution, even in small villages. The emissions take place where people are living. Everyone – from young to old – is inevitably affected because we all breathe the same air.”

Recent data from a village in Slovenia and a study of three small towns in Ireland show that the situation in Melpitz is likely to be replicated in many rural areas. This includes the UK, where the proportion of rural homes that burn wood and coal is twice that in cities.

Another new study has looked at health impacts inside Irish homes that burn wood, coal and peat – most of them in rural towns and villages. Elderly people who heated their homes with open fires had a 2.3 times greater risk of respiratory disease compared with those that used closed stoves. This impact was on top of the effects of tobacco smoking, childhood lung problems and dampness in the home, all of which were important contributors in their own right.

As a group, people with central heating also had an increased risk. This was thought to be due to the large number of Irish homes with central heating who also used open fires for secondary heating.

An earlier study in Ireland also linked indoor smoke from open fires to accelerated cognitive decline, and US a study found that heating a home with a wood stove or fireplace increased the risk of lung cancer by 43%.

There is clearly an urgent need for better data, and for actions to reduce exposure to wood and coal pollution in rural communities across Europe.

Tessa Bartholomew-Good, from the charity Global Action Plan, said: “Public awareness of the harms of domestic burning is still too low. The first step should be to highlight these harms to consumers. For example, introducing health warning labels for both stoves and solid fuels like wood, coal and alternative fuel, similar to the ways used to land the public health harms of smoking.”

Cover photo: The proportion of rural homes that burn wood and coal is twice that in cities. Photograph: Rolf Bruderer/Getty Images/Blend Images