Q&A: Why rules about burning solid fuel are changing

Air pollution risk to health prompts stricter fuel standards for home fires from next year

Tighter regulations will come into force in Ireland on all forms of domestic solid fuels. Photograph: iStock

Tighter regulations will come into force in Ireland on all forms of domestic solid fuels. Photograph: iStock

 

From next year, much tighter regulations will come into force in Ireland on all forms of domestic solid fuels because of evidence that wood stoves and open fires are taking such a toll on human health.

They are a big source of the pollutant PM2.5, which can enter the bloodstream, lodge in lungs and other organs. It has been identified by the World Health Organisation as the most serious air pollutant for human health. The very young and older people are most vulnerable.

There is no other way to put it, we have to face up to the reality that sitting in front of an open fire is as dangerous for your lungs as being exposed to rush-hour traffic.

What exactly is PM2.5 and where does it come from?

Particulate matter (PM) refers to tiny solid and liquid particles which are suspended in the air. It entails a complex mixture of particles, which can vary in size and can consist of a variety of components such as pollen, metals, acids, sea salt, soot, smoke, soil and dust.

The dominant source of PM2.5 – the most noxious form of PM – is residential solid fuel combustion, which represented a 55 per cent share of the total national PM2.5 emissions in 2019.

What exactly are the health impacts of burning solid fuel?

Since the 1990s, medical research has demonstrated links between air pollution and both short and long-term health impacts, including headache, breathing difficulty, eye irritation, exacerbation of respiratory conditions and increased levels of strokes, cancer and respiratory and cardiovascular disease.

The European Environment Agency in its 2020 report, Air Quality in Europe, confirmed in Ireland there were 1,410 premature mortalities arising from air pollution in 2018. Some 1,300 were attributable to PM2.5.

Regulation of solid fuel is a proven means of addressing this. Research shows Dublin’s “smoky coal ban” introduced in 1990 has resulted in approximately 350 fewer mortalities per year.

Those living in urban areas are most at risk, confirmed by frequent breaches of European Union and WHO guidelines and limits.

How do we know what the level of air pollution is?

The Environmental Protection Agency is responsible for monitoring ambient air quality and has a network of 96 monitoring stations, which will soon rise to 110. Funded by the Department of the Environment, Climate and Communications, it provides real-time air quality monitoring across the country, which is easily accessible at airquality.ie

Information generated through monitoring is being augmented by a new modelling and forecasting capability, to provide forecasts to the public backed by a three-day national forecast system and Nowcast maps, which will provide estimates of air quality across the country between monitoring points.

The effects can be heightened by certain weather. Lack of wind, cold temperatures, combined with local geographical features can cause smoke from fossil fuels to stay hanging in place especially at evening time when home fires, stoves and wood burners are lit.

Bad pollution days can occur in winter time, connected to high-pressure meteorological systems that cause slack winds and low temperatures. The bottom line, however, is that coal, peat and wet wood should have no place in the energy system anymore because of health effects that for too long were underestimated or ignored.

What impact will the changes in fuel standards have?

The restrictions, which will form part of the Government’s new national clean air strategy, mean bagged smoky coal and wet wood of less than two cubic metres cannot be sold anywhere in the country, and wet wood in larger volumes must be sold with advice on how to dry it before burning.

The changes also mean all manufactured solid fuels must now have a low sulphur content and only emit a small amount of smoke. Products will be certified and labelled by suppliers to ensure they can be easily identified.

In a country where so much domestic solid fuel is imported, not forgetting the high level of cross-Border smuggling of illegal fuels that has been occurring for years, regulatory authorities will have to be mindful of the potential for market distortion for businesses properly adhering to the regulations.

Are new fuel standards going to hike up the cost of solid fuels?

Clearly all this will have far-reaching implications for the fuels sector. Meanwhile people have to heat their homes, so the changes will give rise to understandable concerns about the cost impact of the new regulations – especially on lower-income households who cannot afford to upgrade their heating systems.

Data from the Economic and Social Research Institute shows that the proportion of households in or at risk of energy poverty was 17.5 per cent in 2020.

However, the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland publishes a domestic fuels comparison of energy costs report every three months, and the most recent shows low-smoke coal (ovoids) is the most cost-efficient choice of coal in terms of heat delivered per cent, and the second most cost-efficient overall.

When combined with the impacts of increased carbon taxes to reduce fossil fuel use and to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the impacts on those living in fuel poverty will be considerable – and necessitate greater financial supports from the Government, especially for those living in rural areas where fuel poverty is most concentrated.

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