Wet Wood Fuel to be banned

From next year, sales of polluting domestic fuels, coal and wet wood, will be phased out in England. What will this mean for households, the environment and the traditional roaring open fire?

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Everyone knows coal, but what is wet wood?

As the name suggests, this is a type of fuel – usually in the form of undried fuel logs – that is burned in stoves and fireplaces. Also known as green or unseasoned wood, it is cheap and widely available in DIY or garden centres, where it is usually sold in sacks or nets. An estimated 2.5m homes in the UK rely on this or coal for heating.

Why is the government stopping sales of it?

The moisture in the wood is a vector for pollutants that can cause breathing problems, heart ailments and lung cancer. When burned, damp wood produces more smoke than dry logs. This includes tiny particulates known as PM2.5 that are more harmful than bigger flakes of soot because they can penetrate deep into the respiratory system and bloodstream. Government figures show coal and wet wood is responsible for 38% of PM2.5 pollution in the UK, three times as much as road transport.

Why now?

Action is long overdue. Even in London, which has had smoke control areas for more than 60 years, wood burning accounts for up to 31% of PM2.5, according to a study by King’s College. The mayor’s office says almost 8 million residents of the city live in places where this form of air pollution exceeds World Health Organization guidelines by at least 50%. At least a dozen other towns and cities, including Scunthorpe, Manchester, Swansea and Gillingham, have even higher levels of pollution.

Does this mark the end of the cosy country hearth and the cool urban stove?

Not yet. The restrictions are limited and will be phased in over several years. Even after they come into full effect, fire lovers will still be able to collect their own kindling and branches and buy seasoned or kiln-dried logs (as long as they have moisture levels below 20%). This fuel is more expensive, but burns more efficiently and more cleanly, which means more heat, lower flue maintenance costs and fewer health concerns. It is also easier to light and produces a satisfying crackle rather than a sputtering hiss.

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Will it make a difference to air quality?

These measures will help, but they should only be a start. The block on sales of coal and wet wood will reduce one major source of harmful air pollution, but there are others including cars, trucks, manufacturing and construction. Tighter controls on vehicle and factory emissions will be necessary if the government is serious about reducing cases of childhood asthma and the sometimes fatal long-term heart and lung problems related to PM2.5. A ban on sales of petrol and diesel cars will not be put in place until 2035. The new policy’s effectiveness will also depend on implementation and closing potential loopholes such as the clause that allows bulk purchases (two cubic metres or more) of wet wood as long as it is sold with advice on how to dry it.