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How a German village illustrates the cancer risk of burning wood

by Alexander
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How a German village illustrates the cancer risk of burning wood

In the fall of 2018, a shipping container full of air pollution measurement equipment arrived in the center of the small German village of Melpitz.

Dr Dominik van Pinxteren of Leibniz Institute for Tropospheric Research explained the reason for their investigation: “We were concerned that wood burning could be a significant source of particle pollution in small villages, but these areas are not sufficiently covered by official water quality monitoring networks. ‘air. »

Located in Saxony and surrounded by farmland and pastures, Melpitz is home to around 200 people. They live in 63 houses, most of which are heated by oil or wood, with a small number of houses using coal.

Researchers discovered that particle pollution in winter in the village was often double that of neighboring fields. The air was worse on weekends when smoke from stoves added to the polluting mix. For villagers, the risk from additional particle pollution was estimated to be half the risk of death in a road accident.

The air in Melpitz contained carcinogens polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, which are persistent pollutants in wood and coal smoke. The cancer risk from these exposures was similar to that of major European cities, including Athens and Florence.

Van Pinxteren said the results were significant: “Residential wood heating can cause significant pollution, even in small villages. The shows take place where people live. Everyone – from the youngest to the oldest – is inevitably affected because we all breathe the same air.

Recent data from a village in Slovenia and one study of three small towns in Ireland show that the Melpitz situation is likely to be repeated in many rural areas. This includes the UK, where the proportion of rural households burning wood and coal it’s double that in the towns.

Another new study examined health impacts in Irish homes that burn wood, coal and peat – most of them in rural towns and villages. Elderly people who heated their homes with open fires had a 2.3 times higher risk of respiratory illness than those who used closed stoves. This impact was in addition to the effects of smoking, childhood lung problems and humidity in the home, all of which were significant factors in their own right.

As a group, people with central heating were also at increased risk. This was thought to be due to the large number of Irish homes with central heating which also used open fires for secondary heating.

A previous study in Ireland has also linked indoor smoke from open fires to accelerated cognitive decline, and a US study found that heating a home with a wood stove or fireplace increased the risk of lung disease. cancer by 43%.

There is clearly an urgent need for better data and action to reduce exposure to wood and coal pollution in rural communities across Europe.

Tessa Bartholomew-Good, from the charity Global Action Plan, said: “Public awareness of the harm caused by house fires is still too low. The first step should be to highlight these harms to consumers. For example, by introducing health warning labels for stoves and solid fuels such as wood, coal and alternative fuels, similar to the methods used to expose the public health harms of smoking.

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