29th July 2021
There has been a lot of coverage in the media about potentially harmful pollutants from wood-burning stoves.
Pollutants are generated from a range of things we encounter in our daily lives – from cars on busy streets, to heating and cooking appliances in our homes.
So should you still use a stove? We explore the kind of pollution a stove can produce and how you can minimise it.
According to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), while UK air quality has improved significantly over the past few decades, the burning of solid fuels (such as coal and wood) in our homes is the largest contributor of harmful particulate-matter (PM) emissions.
Its Clean Air Strategy (published January 2019) states it makes up 38% of our national PM emissions while, in comparison, industrial combustion is 16% and road transport 12%.
This figure includes open fires and using 'dirtier' fuels, such as wet logs and house coal, both of which emit higher levels of PM.
Separate research from January 2020 indicates that the 38% might also include other types of unregulated burning, such as pizza ovens, fire pits and bonfires.
This research was commissioned by Heating Equipment Testing and Approvals Scheme (Hetas), which tests and approves fuel, stoves and installers, and the stove manufacturers' organisation, the Stove Industry Alliance.
The report also indicates that the predictions around the amount of fuel burnt is overestimated and that the methods of measuring PM levels used were not the most accurate.
The government is not going to ban stoves, but instead wants to:
So from 1 May 2021, the following should not be sold in England:
You can still buy larger batches of wood to season at home (which means being left to dry) which can be a cheaper way to buy fuel for your stove. But sellers must give you advice with it on how to store and season the wood until it is ready to burn.
Some very small sellers have until May 2022 to stop selling small batches of wet wood.
You can also buy loose house coal until February 2023. There is already a limit in smoke control areas on burning fuel containing more than 2% sulphur.
The government is working with industry, including Hetas, the Stove Industry Alliance and chimney sweep organisations, to tell stove owners about this when they buy fuel or have their chimney swept or maintained.
The government will work with industry to ensure this target is met and that appliances are tested in the right way.
Rules around smoke control areas, such as only burning certain types of fuel, are adhered to with varying degrees, according to councils. Keep reading to find out more about smoke control areas.
The government is working with local authorities and retailers to raise awareness of these rules when a stove is bought.
It will also make changes to the Environment Bill to ensure smoke-control legislation is easier for local authorities to enforce and look to give authorities more power around reducing pollution further in their area.
Cooking, cleaning and heating appliances, including stoves, all produce pollutants. 'Dirtier' fuels and inefficient non-Defra-exempt stoves will be much worse, so you should steer clear of both these.
Many of the pollutants are more of a problem if you're exposed to high levels over a long period. These problems are likely to be more noticeable in individuals with pre-existing respiratory conditions. But they will also contribute to overall levels of pollution nationally.
Not having a stove will, of course, mean fewer pollutants. But stoves do have some good points, especially when it comes to carbon emissions.
Biomass materials, such as wood, are considered a low-carbon source of energy as they absorb carbon while growing.
Locally produced biomass materials are even better as less carbon is produced when transporting it shorter distances. This can also help you to save money.
There are also things you can do to make sure your stove isn't producing more pollutants than it should (see below).
If you're really concerned about pollution, or have severe health conditions (especially respiratory related), a stove might not be the best option for you.
A study published by researchers at the University of Sheffield and the University of Nottingham in 2020 looked at how much particulate matter was emitted indoors by Defra-certified stoves. It warned that people in homes with a stove are at risk of exposure to high intensities of two types of particulate matter.
You might also want to also consider getting an air purifier to help improve the air quality in your home.
From burning the right fuel to making sure you maintain your appliance, you can minimise pollutants from stoves.
New rules for minimum efficiency and maximum emission levels for stoves will apply from January 2022. The Ecodesign Regulations mean that only stoves that have been tested and meet the new limits will be legal to sell and install in the UK.
You don't have to wait until next year to be able to buy a newer, more efficient stove.
The Stove Industry Alliance (SIA) works with manufacturers to create stoves that meet the emissions part of the criteria now (not the entire criteria). It calls these 'Ecodesign Ready' stoves and says they reduce potentially harmful particle emissions significantly compared with open fires and older stoves.
Hetas also lists stoves that can use its 'Hetas Ecodesign Compliant' logo - these meet the new limits for efficiency and emissions.
If you live in a smoke-controlled area, you are only allowed to burn smokeless fuel – such as anthracite coal. If you want to burn wood, you'll have to buy a Defra-exempt stove (also called Defra-approved).
Even if you don't live in one of these designated areas, a Defra-exempt stove could be a good option to help cut emissions. This is because these stoves fit government criteria for emission levels and the amount of smoke they produce.
Wood creates more smoke if it doesn't have a good-enough supply of oxygen. Defra-exempt stoves make it harder for wood to smoulder and stop it from ever being completely starved of oxygen. So, as well as reducing emissions, it will minimise soot build-up in your chimney. This will keep your flue clearer for gases to escape.
To help reduce potentially harmful emissions from your stove, only burn wood with 20% or less moisture content.
Burning dry wood is more efficient, as energy won’t be wasted having to burn off the water first, so the heat output will be higher. It also minimises sooty deposits building up in your chimney, which can be a fire hazard.
You can buy 'Ready to Burn' wood (look out for the label on packaging) so you know it has less than 20% moisture or dry your own.
Keep in mind that seasoning could take two or more years, depending on how wet the wood is to begin with and the conditions you store it in. You can buy a moisture meter to check the levels. Sellers must give you advice on how to ensure wood is properly seasoned.
Ready to Burn wood should show the logo, the supplier's name and their certificate number to prove they are compliant.
Most suppliers are banned from selling small quantities of wood with more than 20% moisture.
Never burn treated wood, such as from an old piece of furniture, as it could let off toxic chemicals.
Burning smokeless coal is more environmentally friendly than using house coal, as it produces fewer emissions. Some 22% of stove owners who answered our survey use this regularly and only 4% use house coal.
Smokeless coal is an umbrella term for a few different types of coal that produce less smoke as they burn. It includes anthracite coal – this occurs naturally, but can also be manufactured.
Manmade smokeless coals can contain a combination of elements, including anthracite and other renewable materials, making many of them more eco-friendly than house coal.
Look for smokeless fuel with 2% or less sulphur, as high levels of sulphur can impact your health, and damage stoves and chimneys. For smoke-controlled areas, the Clean Air Act 1993 states that smokeless solid fuels mustn't contain more than 2% sulphur.
You should no longer be able to buy pre-packaged house coal in England. Manufacturers of solid fuel must put the Ready to Burn logo on packaging to show that is meets new standards for emissions and sulphur content.
Wood that doesn't have a good supply of air is likely to smoke more, therefore producing higher levels of potentially harmful emissions.
Whether you're burning wood or smokeless fuel, leave the door ajar and open air vents while you're getting the fire going. Once established, use the air vents to keep the fire burning.
Ensure the flue stays at the right temperature throughout use by making sure the fire is constant. Building burning materials into a teepee shape at the beginning will help.
This will help avoid carbon monoxide – an odourless and potentially deadly gas – coming down the chimney.
It's worth buying a stove thermometer to monitor the temperature. Most stoves should stay between 200°C and 250°C. This can vary for each stove, so check with your manufacturer.
Having your chimney swept regularly is vital for ensuring it doesn't get overloaded with sooty deposits. Any obstructions could become a fire hazard and will prevent smoke escaping from your home properly.
You should get it swept quarterly while it's in use if you burn wood or coal. If you burn smokeless coal, you should get it swept once a year. You should also have your stove serviced annually to make sure it's working efficiently and safely.
Worryingly, 4% of people we spoke to never get their stove swept. However, a high proportion (59%) get it swept annually and 31% every few years.
Make sure you also examine your stove for any cracks, distortions or other problems and get them checked by a stove installer or chimney sweep. Any faults could mean harmful pollutants are making their way into your home.
There are three main types of pollution in our homes: particulate matter (PM), gases and volatile organic compounds (VOCs).
Combustion is created by wood and coal fires, but also by regular activities - such as burning candles, using electric toasters and gas cooking.
Combustion produces tiny particulate matter. This can also come from dusting and vacuuming.
Particulate matter can inflame your airways, and increase the risk of lung and heart disease if inhaled at persistently high levels over time.
Gases – including carbon dioxide (CO2), nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and carbon monoxide (CO) – are emitted by appliances that burn fuel, such as open fires, gas cookers and gas boilers.
CO is an odourless, but potentially deadly, gas. Every home should have at least one working carbon monoxide detector, correctly positioned. But don't think every carbon monoxide detector is up to the job of protecting you and your family.
Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are chemicals found in a wide variety of materials. They're produced when cooking and using heating appliances, such as wood burners and non-electric space heaters. VOCs evaporate into the air at room temperature, forming vapours that we breathe.
Different classes of VOCs have different risk levels. For example, benzene (from petrol and cigarette smoke and, potentially, from paints and solvents) is high risk. Terpenes, including limonene and pinene (familiar lemon and pine smells used in scented toiletries and bathroom cleaners), are considered lower risk.
VOCs can react with ozone from outdoor air, particularly in hot weather, to form the gas formaldehyde and other irritants. Formaldehyde is a lung irritant that can cause allergic reactions and, at very high levels, is carcinogenic. Formaldehyde can also be released from new flatpack furniture, lino and carpet, fabrics, bedding, glues and insulation.
Exposure to very high levels of VOCs can cause symptoms such as eye, nose and throat irritation, headaches and nausea and, in the long term, even damage the liver, kidneys and central nervous system.
In December 2016, we took snapshot measurements of air-quality and ventilation rates in three semi-detached houses:
Our measurements were taken with the windows closed before, and almost immediately after, concentrated bursts of common household activities. This included vacuuming, cleaning, cooking, and using personal care and scented products.
We discovered surprisingly high levels of pollutants with potential cumulative long-term health effects in all our test houses.
While the activities we performed were relatively short-term – making a fry-up, cleaning the bath and vacuuming – it’s the prolonged exposure to the generated pollutants that could cause health problems.
It's important to stress that some people are more susceptible to the effects of indoor pollutants – for example, if you suffer from asthma, are sensitive to allergens indoors, or have heart or lung disease.
We're not suggesting you should worry about every candle you light, or open all the windows, even in winter. Our discoveries are more about potential cumulative effects over the longer term. But there are things you can do to limit the risks:
*January 2019 survey of 1,434 Which? members who have bought a stove in the past 10 years.