My burning shame: I equipped my house with three wood stoves | Jorge Monbiot
It’s a shame it prevented me from writing about it earlier. The shame of not being able to think for myself and see the big picture, which is more or less my job description. Instead, I followed the crowd.
In 2008 I was remodeling my house. It was a century old and poorly built. Insulating it and installing efficient appliances was expensive but easy, and the decisions I made were generally good ones. But the most difficult issue was the heating. The technology that seemed most promising a few years earlier: domestic fuel cells – had not materialized. Domestic heat pumps (which are now more widely available) were extremely expensive and were hardly being implemented in the UK. That left only two options: gas or wood. I wanted to wean myself off fossil fuels. So I went with the wood.
At some expense, I installed three log burners and the necessary steel ductwork to remove the smoke. He would buy the wood locally, from a contractor he knew.
I started to doubt my choice when the first load arrived. It consisted of the gnarled, lichen-encrusted branches of what must once have been a venerable oak. I later heard that as the price of firewood rose, some contractors employed to keep roads clear had broadened their definition of unsafe trees and felled more zealously. So instead of using trees that would have been cut down anyway, you could have been commissioning ecological destruction.
I later discovered that the stoves, when I opened them, made me cough and seemed to exacerbate my asthma. Worse yet, when I turned off a stove to filter some heat through the house at night, the chimney spewed out a cloud of black smoke and soot. He knew it couldn’t be healthy, but he figured it was less harmful than the smoke from fossil fuels, especially car engines.
I now know, thanks in no small part to dedicated reporting by The Guardian’s environmental editor Damian Carrington, that I couldn’t have been more wrong. Wood smoke is amazingly harmful.. Although only 8% of UK households (mostly wealthy) have a wood burning stove, they release more small particles – the most dangerous pollutants – than all the vehicles on the road. Even a modern, “green” approved wood stove produces 750 times as many fine particles as a heavy vehicle.
Have some figures for deaths believed to be caused by outdoor air pollution: between 26,000 and 38,000 a year in England. But we don’t have data on the impact of indoor air pollution, of which wood stoves, in homes that have them, are by far the largest source. Every time you open the stove door To refuel, your home is flooded with tiny particles, along with other toxins such as benzene, formaldehyde, and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, pushing pollution levels well above World Health Organization guidelines.
These poisons can affect every organ in the body. Tiny particles pass directly through the lungs into the bloodstream. Wherever they stay they cause damage. They are associated with a wide range of cancers, heart and lung disease, stroke, dementia, and loss of intelligence. They age the skin and damage the liver. They harm fetuses in the womb and the development of children. It’s especially ironic to find wood stoves in the homes of people who only buy organic, to reduce the chemical load on their bodies. Burning wood is consistent with the “naturalness” of this approach, but what we consider “natural” (a term we often use to refer to “old”) is not always the best.
What I should have done, as I became aware of the facts, was write about it. But that would have meant admitting that he had made an expensively bad decision. Instead, while I lived in that house for the next four years, I froze in silence, hardly using the stoves or the old gas central heating system. I am now convinced that the sale of wood stoves and pellet boilers should be banned and its use phased out (with help for very few people who do not have an alternative source of heat). Let’s face it, if wood burning was primarily a working-class habit, it probably would have been banned by now.
Today, it would be an easier decision to make. For the same budget you could buy a air source heat pump. But what would I have done in 2008, knowing what I know now? There were no good options. But I think the best option would have been to install a highly efficient gas boiler and use it as sparingly as possible.
Even fossil fuels, terrible as their impact, are less damaging than the public health disaster to which I contributed and to which other well-meaning people still contribute. We have a duty, to ourselves and to others, to admit our mistakes.
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