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English councils issue only 19 fines for wood smoke despite 18,000 complaints

·3-min read

Only seven councils in England have issued fines for toxic wood smoke, a total of 19 penalties in the past six years, despite more than 18,000 complaints.

The campaign group Mums for Lungs, which gathered the data, has written to the health secretary calling for wood stoves to be phased out by 2027 because of the deceptively high levels of air pollution they emit.

Even eco-friendly versions release 500 times more particulate matter than a standard boiler, causing “despair” among people who experience the second-hand smoke from their neighbours’ wood burners.

A total of 2.5m households in the UK use a stove or open fire, and 96% of them have alternative sources of heat. Two-thirds of those who burn indoors live in urban areas, where levels of dirty air are already at their worst.

One woman, who lives in Warrington, said her health had seriously declined since a close neighbour installed a wood stove two years ago, approved by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra). “Within weeks … my lungs were affected so badly that my GP had to refer me to a respiratory specialist. I can’t live like this and I intend to sell my home and move to a new area,” she said.

Related: Revealed: how Tory politicians fought plans to tackle air pollution

“I’ve contacted my local council … many times and they said they’re aware of the large increase in the number of wood-burning stoves in the town over the last few years, and that there have been a number of complaints about them, but the council seem reluctant to do anything about it. I’ve also contacted my MP, who has shown no interest.”

She added: “Smoking was banned in indoor public places because it’s unacceptable to expose people to second-hand smoke, and yet many people are exposed to large amounts of smoke and invisible pollution from neighbours’ wood-burning stoves. Wood-burning stoves should be banned.”

Complaints to councils are increasing and are highest in urban areas such as London, Oldham and Preston. This is partly because pollution from domestic wood burning has trebled in the past two decades, with 200,000 new wood-burning stoves being bought every year.

Mums for Lungs is calling for wood burners to carry warning labels so people understand the risks and for councils to have more powers to tackle the problem.

Jemima Hartshorn, founder of the organisation, said: “It’s like a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Even so-called ‘eco-stoves’ emit much more pollution than diesel HGVs – and you would not want those in your living room. We urge the government to end wood burning, and those who have a wood burner or a fireplace, to think twice. Cold weather makes respiratory diseases worse.”

Defra said: “Air pollution has reduced significantly since 2010, with emissions of fine particulate matter falling by 11%. We are taking steps to cut air pollution from household burning by introducing legislation which restricts the sale of the most polluting solid fuels, such as wet wood and coal – and encouraging the use of cleaner fuels in the home.

“Our landmark environment bill contains measures which will make it easier for local authorities to tackle pollution from domestic burning by providing powers to issue civil penalty notices for smoke emissions.”

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