The link between wood smoke and asthma

Is there a link between wood smoke and asthma?

We can’t imagine an ethical way of conducting the types of trials that could deliberately expose individuals to different sources of air pollution and measure the health outcomes over their lifetimes. It is also likely that in a real world situation people will be exposed to multiple different pollution sources. This makes it difficult to prove the influence of individual pollution sources on individual cases.

As an alternative to conducting long-term harmful experiments on individuals, scientists may examine different population exposures to pollution and examine the health outcomes for different groups to determine the relationship between pollutants and health impacts. An example of this is the research conducted into the link between adverse health impacts and living in proximity to traffic pollution. In the Health Impact Evaluation we commissioned in 2023 it was estimated that air pollution from wood burning led to 84 hospital admissions for new asthma cases in children aged between 6 and 15 in London evey year.The pollution emitted by domestic combustion, including wood burning, includes particulate matter, volatile organic compounds (VOCs), and sulphur dioxide (SO2).  If you would like to know more about particulate matter please read our earlier article.

In 2022 domestic combustion contributed the following to air pollution in the UK:

  • SO2 – 31%
  • VOCs – 3%
  • PM2.5 – 29%, of which wood was 22%
  • PM10  – 15%

PM10 is partculate matter smaller than 10 micrometres and PM2.5 is particulate matter smaller than 2.5 micrometres.

Air pollution is the largest environmental risk to health in the UK, and particulate matter pollution is associated with many adverse health effects and diseases, including asthma. Studies show a clear link between increases in particulate pollution and increases in asthma attacks, medication usage and hospital visits for asthma and upper respiratory infections. Additionally, exposure to particulate pollution has been shown to result in deficits in lung function growth and this may be an additional risk for asthma. Both studies directly show that particulate pollution has a negative impact on lung growth and function.

Air pollution can be both a cause of asthma and a trigger of asthma, and with domestic wood burning contributing 22% of the small particle pollution (PM2.5) in the UK it would be hard to say that this was  not nikely to be a contributor to the PM2.5 impacts on asthma.

You can take action to reduce the impacts of household smoke for you and those around you by:

  • Not burning solid fuels for heating
  • Not burning household or garden waste
  • Working with your community to reduce all forms of air pollution by raising awareness about the importance of clean air for everyone

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