May 1, 2015

Wood Smoke Harms Your Lungs

Dr James Markos, Respiratory Physician, Launceston General Hospital and Lung Foundation Australia State Chair Tasmania

Wood smoke is harmful to our health and especially to our lungs. It is made up of tiny particles, smaller than one thousandth of a millimeter. These tiny particles escape the filtering system in our nose and they penetrate deeply
into the small bronchial tubes and into the air sacs. Wood smoke also contains harmful gases, such as carbon monoxide, and harmful chemicals, like hydrocarbons. In some ways it is very similar to tobacco smoke which we know there is no safe level of exposure to.
The people most at risk from wood smoke are those with serious lung diseases including asthma, chronic bronchitis, emphysema and bronchiectasis. More than 1 in 10 Australians has a chronic lung disease, so there are many people at risk. Also at risk are people with serious heart disease, the elderly and very young children.

High levels of wood smoke have been recorded in many Australian cities, particularly in the cold inland valleys
in winter. With high levels of wood smoke, more people experience symptoms such as cough, wheeze and breathlessness. This increases hospital admissions for treatment of their lung disease, and sadly more people
will die prematurely from severe lung or heart disease.

In 2014, WHO International Agency for Research on Cancer concluded that long term exposure to outdoor pollution, especially particle pollution which includes wood smoke, has been shown to be a cause of lung cancer and bladder cancer. Tobacco smoking remains by far the major cause of lung cancer, however non-smokers are still at a small risk of lung cancer from air pollution or environmental tobacco smoke.

Particle pollution levels have fallen in recent years with more awareness of the dangers. There are government programs to monitor and regulate air pollution levels. Environment Australia runs the National Environment Protection Measure, which is currently reviewing the regulations for particle pollution. Government programs have also provided financial incentives to change home wood heating to less polluting options as in Launceston
and Armidale.

We should all try to keep our air clean and one important way to achieve this is by not burning wood. We all need to keep warm during winter, but there are cleaner options to heat our homes and dispose of garden waste.
With winter upon us, now is the time to consider your lungs as well as those of your family, friends and neighbours. Remember, when you can’t breathe… nothing else matters.

If you would like to find out more about air quality or have an air pollution query, please visit your state or territory website:

Queensland: Department of Environment and Heritage Protection – www.ehp.qld.gov.au

New South Wales: NSW Environment Protection Authority (EPA) – www.epa.nsw.gov.au

South Australia: Environment Protection Authority South Australia – www.epa.sa.gov.au

Victoria: Environment Protection Authority Victoria – www.epa.vic.gov.au

Western Australia: Environmental Protection Authority Western Australia – www.epa.wa.gov.au

Tasmania: Environment Protection Authority Tasmania – epa.tas.gov.au/epa

Northern Territory: Northern Territory Environment Protection Authority – www.ntepa.nt.gov.au

Australian Capital Territory: Environment Protection Authority ACT – www.environment.act.gov.au