Wood heaters in the ACT

Why did we need to investigate wood heater policy?

Smoke that comes from household wood heaters is a significant source of Canberra’s air pollution in winter months. This situation is particularly concerning, as there is no safe concentration of fine particle pollution for sensitive people, and smoke can cause serious respiratory and cardiovascular outcomes at the population level. 

The impact of wood heaters varies across the ACT. Small particulate matter pollution (PM2.5 pollution, particulate matter less than 2.5 micrometres in size) is far more prevalent in the Tuggeranong Valley than in other areas. 

Wood heater smoke negatively affects Canberrans. Over the period of 2017–2019, air pollution complaints to the EPA were dominated by smoke (wood heaters and controlled burns), accounting for 403 air pollution complaints (55 per cent of the total).

While there has been increasing recognition of the negative impacts of wood heaters and smoke, there has been a lack of clear progress in improving air pollution in Canberra over time. 

This Investigation explores the policies for managing wood heaters in the ACT and sets out 8 recommendations aimed to improve our air quality. 

To view the report click here.

To view the Health impacts of air pollution: a summary of the evidence with reference to wood heater smoke Report click here.

How do wood heaters affect human health?

Wood heater smoke contains a mixture of pollutants including particulate matter, carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide and volatile organic gases, which are all detrimental to human health.Of these pollutants, fine particulate matter — PM2.5 — is generally considered the most hazardous. 

When it is breathed in, PM2.5 goes deep into the lungs, enters the blood and travels throughout the body. This can lead to eye, throat and lung inflammation.

Breathing in PM2.5 also has negative long-term health impacts. PM2.5 is one of many factors that can cause or worsen chronic diseases. This includes cardiovascular diseases (e.g. heart attacks and strokes), respiratory diseases, diabetes, cancer, changes in cognitive abilities, lower birth weight in babies and increases in rates of some pregnancy complications.

There is no safe level of PM2.5. Even at the relatively low concentrations of PM2.5 typically seen in Australia, poor health effects are present.

Case studies: Experiences of the Canberra community

Case Study 1: Multiple reports of smoke

Mr A has lived in his north Canberra home for over 40 years, and was never bothered by woodsmoke until 2018, when he believes one of his neighbours burned some old window frames in his wood heater. Mr A reports that thick brown smoke smelling of burned plastic blew across his property for hours at a time.

Mr A talked to his neighbour about the unwanted smoke and odour, and while the neighbour initially seemed sympathetic, he did nothing to change his habits. At times the smoke caused irritation to Mr A’s eyes and a tightness in his throat, causing him to cough whenever he went outside, and the smell made him feel nauseous. By the end of winter, Mr A found that he had to stay inside for most of the day and was unable to enjoy his usual pastimes of tending his garden or working in his carport restoring his car.

The problem smoke returned in autumn 2019, as it has done every year since. Mr A believes that now his neighbour has found a cheap or free source of fuel, he habitually uses this to supplement his purchased firewood and may have stopped buying firewood altogether.

Increasingly forced to stay indoors, Mr A found that the smoke was making its way into his home even when he kept all doors and windows tightly closed. To try to remedy this, he had his windows and doors sealed with rubber and has fitted plastic sheets over the inside of his windows in an effort to keep the smoke from seeping in. His reverse cycle air conditioner has been sealed off to prevent smoke and odour being drawn into his main living area. He has also stopped up the internal floor vents of his ducted heating system to reduce the circulation of smoke through the house. Unable to use his central heating, Mr A has spent thousands of dollars on portable oil heaters and an expensive new split system with a double air filter, which is installed on the wall of his house furthest away from his neighbour’s house. These measures allow him to heat only a few rooms at a time.

When Mr A’s attempts to talk to his neighbour about the problem were ignored, he began reporting the smoke problem to the EPA via the Access Canberra call centre. He did this consistently through the winters of 2019 and 2020, spending many hours on the phone. Although EPA staff visited the house on several occasions and collected photo and video evidence from Mr A, their process for determining environmental harm from wood heater smoke (refer to Figure 4) meant that they were unable to conclude that any harm was being caused. Mr A believes his neighbour realised that EPA staff did not attend callouts after dark and subsequently changed his habits, now only lighting his wood heater at dusk. When the burning started again in 2021, Mr A was informed that his case had been closed and the evidence he had submitted in previous years could no longer be considered. He would have to start the process again each year.

Mr A suffers from a chronic respiratory condition which he has managed since 2013 through medication and careful monitoring. Since 2020 he has been admitted to hospital on several occasions due to severe lung infections. He is now supplied with oxygen by ACT Health due to his breathing difficulties. In spite of his efforts to talk to his neighbour and work with the EPA, Mr A is still being impacted by the problem of wood heater smoke. Within the current policy setting, it appears that the right of a citizen to use a wood heater is held more highly than the right of a citizen to clean air in their own home.

Case study 2: A district-wide winter problem

Mr B moved to a new home in Tuggeranong in March 2021 with his wife and two young children, aged four and one. One evening, around a month after they had moved in, they smelled smoke in their house and at first thought that something was on fire. However, they soon realised that the smoke inside their home was coming from wood burning heaters across the neighbourhood. The problem became more severe as the year progressed; from April to late November, their house was filled with wood heater smoke almost every night.

On some occasions, the air quality in the children’s bedrooms was so poor that their parents sent them to stay at their grandparents’ house to protect them. Mr B’s eldest child has asthma, and he and his wife worry constantly about the health consequences of their exposure to the polluted air inside their home. While Mr B does not have asthma himself, he developed a persistent cough during the wood burning season, which lasted until around December in 2021 and returned again in autumn 2022. He believes this is caused by being regularly forced to inhale smoke. 

In addition to having to live with persistent concerns about their family’s health, Mr B and his wife have spent a considerable amount of money trying to mitigate the problem smoke inside their home. They report that they have spent around $50,000 on new windows in the hope that sturdy frames and double glazing would help to prevent smoke from getting into their home. They also say they’ve spent several thousand dollars on air purifiers to try to reduce the smoke pollution inside the house. In addition to these upfront costs, they now have to pay higher energy bills as a result of running five air purifiers for 12+ hours per day for most of the year, and for replacement filters. Mr B recognises that he is in a very fortunate position in being able to afford these expensive measures. Many Canberrans would not be able to do this and would have to live with unmoderated smoke pollution in their homes.

Mr B has written to the ACT Health Minister and Environment Minister, as well as his MLAs. He reports that he has received almost unanimous agreement from them that wood heater pollution is a serious problem in Tuggeranong. However, within the current policy settings there is no action that can be taken to address wood heater smoke at the neighbourhood level. From Mr B’s perspective, ACT Government education campaigns and heater removal programs are not making any difference to his family’s situation and experiences of wood heater smoke pollution. 

How do wood heaters affect the environment?

Wood heaters can impact the environment in several ways. First, wood heaters often produce methane and black carbon which exacerbate climate change.

Second, firewood for wood heaters can impact forests and woodlands. In NSW and Victoria, more than 60 per cent of firewood harvested is sourced from native woodlands including box-ironbark forests. Even the legal removal of standing dead wood often has a negative impact on ecosystems, by reducing the availability of tree hollows and input of material to the litter layer which are critical for a range of native species.

Firewood harvesting has the potential to impact on several species listed as threatened under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act).

There is little available information on where the firewood used in wood heaters in the ACT comes from. The illegal collection of firewood from the Territory’s reserves is a known and recurring issue.

How are wood heaters managed in the ACT?

The management of wood heaters is complex and it is underpinned by multiple pieces of legislation. To minimise pollution for wood smoke in the ACT, there is an entire suite of policies, strategies, programs and initiatives. Responsibilities for different aspects of wood heater regulation and air quality monitoring are shared across three different ACT Government directorates: 

Environment, Planning and Sustainable Development Directorate: Responsible for Environment Protection Policies that help to explain and apply the Environment Protection Act 1997 and the Environment Protection Regulation 2005, including policies relating to wood heaters. Responsible for the strategic planning and leasehold system, including air quality assessments that have restricted wood heater installations in some new development areas. It is also responsible for building policy and regulation for wood heater installations.

Chief Minister, Treasury and Economic Development Directorate: The Environment Protection Authority (EPA) is established under the Environment Protection Act 1997. As a statutory entity, the EPA is responsible for the administration of the Act.

The EPA has responsibility for regulation of wood heater smoke and odour, firewood merchant regulation, and annual reporting under the Ambient Air Quality National Environment Protection Measure (AAQ NEPM), which provides air quality standards for the most common air pollutants.

ACT Health Directorate: Responsible for reporting on air quality monitoring in the ACT, assessing air quality and issuing public health alerts, if required.

Whole-of-Government: Responsible for the Bushfire Smoke and Air Quality Strategy 2021–2025.

Comprehensive details about the management of wood heaters in the ACT can be found in the report.

What does the report suggest the ACT Government do?

This Investigation finds that the current policies, plans and strategies for managing wood heaters in the ACT are insufficient. They are not adequately protecting human health and the environment of from issues arising from wood heaters, including air quality issues.

The report notes that while ACT Government is committed to strengthening wood heater emissions standards and phasing out older wood heaters that do not meet standards, but this has not gone far enough for improving air quality. 

The report makes eight recommendations for improving air quality and minimising the environmental impacts of wood heaters. These are summarised here:

Phase out of wood heaters

01. Phase out wood heaters from ACT suburbs 

02. Ban the installation of new wood heaters in all ACT suburbs (excluding rural areas)

03. Establish a register of wood heaters in the ACT so that we know the number and age of wood heaters

04. Require the removal of wood heaters before a property in any ACT suburb (excluding rural areas) can be sold

Education about wood heater risks

05. Introduce labelling of firewood and woods heaters, that explains the health risks associated with wood heater usage

06. Include messaging about the health risks associated with wood heater usage in ACT Government education and communication activities 

Strengthen compliance

07. Improve the way that wood heater smoke complaints are assessed by the EPA

2019 State of the Environment Report recommendations

08. Reconsider responses to the 2019 State of the Environment Report’s recommendations 21 and 22

Next steps

The Wood heaters in the ACT Investigation will be presented to the Legislative Assembly in 2023.

The ACT Government provided a response to the eight Recommendations outlined in the report in August 2023.