Burning smoky fuel at home is bad for your health

By June Shannon Policy News   |   1st Mar 2021

Essential that new regulations are accompanied by measures ensuring that nobody is left without an affordable means of heating their home safely.

THE Irish public are unaware that the burning of smoky fuels such as coal, turf and wet wood in the home are responsible for the majority of deaths from air pollution here every year, according to a new survey.

The new Ipsos MRBI poll was carried out on behalf of the Irish Heart Foundation and the Asthma Society of Ireland between the 18th and 31st of January 2021. It comprised an Omnipoll telephone survey of a nationally representative sample of 1,004 adults aged 15 and over.

According to the survey, just over one in ten respondents were aware of the health dangers of burning smoky fuel at home.

It is estimated that 1,400 people lose their lives in Ireland every year as a result of air pollution.

The  poll also revealed that less than half of the population were aware of the likely health damage caused by emissions which remain in the home when smoky fuels are used.

Burning smoky fuel at home results in the release of microscopic pollutants known as PM2.5 into the air and these are responsible for an estimated 92 per cent of air pollution deaths in Ireland. Heart disease and stroke account for 80 per cent of all deaths from air pollution here, but people also die from lung cancer, COPD and kidney disease as a result of air pollution.

" When you sit in front of an open fire, you’re exposed to similar levels of toxic fumes found in traffic blackspots at rush hour,"

Dr Tim Collins, CEO, The Irish Heart Foundation

The Ipsos MRBI poll was commissioned to assess public knowledge of the devastating health impact of burning smoky fuels at home in conjunction with a new Government consultation which proposes tough restrictions on the use of these fuels.

“Home fuel burning is having a hugely detrimental impact on the nation’s health – with children, older people and those living with chronic diseases being the worst affected. It’s crucial that the scale of the damage being done is fully understood in the debate on banning smoky fuels. The fact is that when you sit in front of an open fire, you’re exposed to similar levels of toxic fumes found in traffic blackspots at rush hour,” said Dr Tim Collins, CEO, the Irish Heart Foundation.

Evidence shows that pollutants called PM2.5 that can be 40 times smaller than a grain of sand enter the bloodstream after being emitted from smoky fuels. This can trigger asthma, skin and autoimmune diseases and inflammatory bowel disease, as well as causing infertility, miscarriage, sight loss and dementia. Heart disease and stroke account for up to 80 per cent  of deaths from air-pollution, but fatalities are also caused by lung cancer, diabetes, kidney disease, liver disease and COPD.

“While most fatalities occur among older people, there is growing evidence worldwide of severe impact on children’s health. We have known for some time that children’s hearts, brains, hormone systems and immunity can all be harmed by air pollution. Now research is beginning to point towards effects on growth, intelligence, and development of the brain and coordination. People – parents, grandparents, childminders – need to think of that every time they light the stove or the fire,” Dr Collins added.

“Improvements in air quality in Ireland through the reduction of burning all smoky fuels can only have a positive health impact for us all,"

Emily Blennerhassett, Interim CEO , The Asthma Society of Ireland

Emily Blennerhassett, Interim CEO of the Asthma Society of Ireland said, “Ireland has one of the highest incidence rates of asthma in the world with one in ten children and one in thirteen adults developing the condition and 890,000 people likely to develop asthma in their lifetimes.

‘’Air pollution has been proven to cause asthma in children, specifically NO2, which is most commonly sourced from traffic emissions and emission from coal burning. Globally, an estimated four million new cases of asthma in young children are attributed to NO2 emissions. Efforts to reduce NO2 levels could substantially reduce new asthma cases in children. Not only can air pollution cause asthma to develop, it can also worsen asthma symptoms, increasing the risks of an asthma exacerbation, an asthma attack, and increased risk of premature death.

“Improvements in air quality in Ireland through the reduction of burning all smoky fuels can only have a positive health impact for us all, and especially for those living with respiratory conditions like asthma’’ added Ms Blennerhasset.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), up to 40 per cent of emissions from open fires remain in the home, however just over half of respondents to the Ipsos MRBI poll (54%) believed that burning smoky fuels was a cause of indoor air pollution and only 42 per cent believed this would damage the health of people living in these homes.

Dr Collins said, ‘’regardless of how far policymakers are prepared to go to restrict the use of smoky fuels, it’s imperative that the whole country is fully aware just how dangerous using smoky fuels is, and as much for their own family’s health as that of their neighbours and communities.

“It must be stressed that it’s not enough just to ban smoky coal – the evidence now suggests that peat and wet wood may be just as harmful. Therefore, restrictions on these fuels must be part of new regulations.”

"Enabling every household in the country to move away from dangerous solid fuel burning must be made a national health priority,"

Dr Tim Collins, CEO, The Irish Heart Foundation

The Ipsos MRBI also revealed that  51 per cent of respondents thought that transport was chiefly responsible for the health impact of air pollution in Ireland, 21 per cent believed industry was responsible, and just 11 per cent thought the health impact of air pollution was caused by coal, peat and wood burned in the nation’s homes. In fact, the burning of solid fuels is the dominant cause of negative health impacts from air pollution.

Just one in five thought heart disease and stroke was the leading cause of death from air pollution, despite the fact that it accounts for as many as four out of every five air pollution fatalities.

Dr Collins added that while the Irish Heart Foundation fully supports the proposed restrictions on smoky fuels, it was essential that the new regulations are accompanied by measures ensuring that nobody is left without an affordable means of heating their home safely.

In addition to an accelerated national retrofitting programme focusing first on people at risk of fuel poverty, this requires increases in the Fuel Allowance to ensure that nobody on low income is out of pocket due to the legislation.

“Enabling every household in the country to move away from dangerous solid fuel burning must be made a national health priority. It should be accompanied by a concerted information campaign to explain the health risks so those who can make the switch as soon as they possibly can,” said Dr Collins.

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air pollution asthma environment health impact heart disease smoky fuels stroke

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