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Blazing log fire in a fireplace

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How a roaring log or coal fire this Christmas could be bad for your health

As soaring gas prices continue to take their toll and push more people into fuel poverty, and temperatures plummet this winter, people are increasingly likely to turn to coal or wood to heat their homes.

The BBC recently reported that wholesale gas prices had increased by 250% across the world since January.

A string of energy suppliers have collapsed, and as the cost of heating your home rises, the open fire in the living room suddenly looks a lot more appealing.

An expert at the University of Hull has warned, however, of the health risks associated with coal and wood-burning fires to those who do not treat them properly.

Respiratory conditions which have been linked to prolonged exposure to ash particulates from fires include silicosis – a disease which in the most extreme cases can cause respiratory failure.

Dr Martin Taylor, part of the Energy & Environment Institute at the University of Hull, said: “I think most people are familiar with the fact that burning coal produces a variety of nasty gases – many of which can be incredibly harmful to people without proper ventilation or a path for gases to exhaust.

“What fewer people realise is that the ash left behind from burning coal, which sits in your fireplace at the heart of your living room, can actually be more harmful over the long-term, especially when it is unsettled and disperses into the air”.

“These ash particulates can get trapped in your lungs and settle in mucus linings and ash components such as silica, if inhaled, can lead to silicosis – which is very harmful condition. There are many other compounds in ash that can irritate the respiratory system, the eyes or even your skin.”

Silicosis is a long-term lung disease, caused by inhaling silica particulates over a long period of time. Common symptoms include a persistent cough, shortness of breath and tiredness.

In more severe cases, it can also increase the risk of developing other conditions, including lung cancer, kidney disease and heart failure.

Once a coal fire has burned down, ash would typically stay contained within the tray in the fireplace.

However, if disturbed during cleaning, or by a pet, harmful particulates can be thrown out into your home, which if inhaled over a long period of time, can have dangerous health implications.

Dr Taylor said it was important that people keep their homes heated, but stressed that wood or coal fires must be handled carefully, particularly when emptying and cleaning ash from cooled fires.

He said: “I am not saying do not use a coal or wood fire. We need to ensure we heat our homes to maintain a quality of life, but if we are using these fuels, then people need to be aware of the dangers.”

“Another common mistake people make is burning wood which has not been dried properly. If someone uses wood collected on a walk and throws it straight onto their fire, then it will produce a lot more smoke and by-products which you do not want in your home.”

“Wood must be dried over a period of months before it is suitable to be burned in a fireplace and it is instead much safer use pre-dried or kiln-dried wood.”

In May 2021, the Government introduced new restrictions on the sale of coal and wet wood for home burning.

The laws state:

  • Sales of bagged traditional house coal and wet wood in units under 2m3 are now unlawful.
  • Wet wood in larger volumes must be sold with advice on how to dry it before burning.
  • All manufactured solid fuels must now have a low sulphur content and only emit a small amount of smoke.
  • In addition, a new certification scheme will see products certified and labelled by suppliers to ensure that they can be easily identified, and retail outlets will only able to sell fuel that is accompanied by the correct label.

Professor Daniel Parsons, Director of the Energy and Environment Institute highlighted “As well as the health implications there are a range of environmental impacts and repercussions of households burning coal.”

The Guardian reported this year that fireplaces and stoves are now the largest single source of primary particle pollution in the UK, and even greater than traffic and industry. About 40% of the UK’s primary particle pollution comes from just 7% of homes that burn solid fuel.

Carbon capture technology – which is in its early stages on a large industrial scale – is unlikely to be practical on a domestic level and as the UK looks to move to a Net Zero carbon economy by 2050, burning wood and coal in household fires can’t easily be mitigated, said Prof Parsons.

While low-carbon heating technologies – such as heat pumps and solar panels – are readily available on the market, they are unaffordable for many families and there is a need for a policy change at the heart of government to make these technologies the default choice.

“Looking ahead, we are undoubtedly going to have to find an alternative to gas as a mainstream source of heating for our homes and these existing technologies, such as solar or heat pumps or even hydrogen boilers, become that solution.”

“Unfortunately, options such as gas, coal or wood fires all have consequences to either our health, the environment, or both,” concluded Dr Taylor.

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