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Opinion: A roaring fire might be cosy, but it's causing serious health issues

Irish Heart Foundation CEO Dr Tim Collins says we need to understand just how dangerous open fires are to our health.

Dr Tim Collins

THE NEXT TIME you sit in front of a roaring fire, think of your worst local traffic blackspot. Then imagine being transported in your armchair into the thick of the smoky emissions during a pre-pandemic rush hour.

From a health standpoint, the two are the same. When you light your fire, you’re exposed to similar levels of toxic fumes found in a traffic jam.

These carry microscopic pollutants past your body’s defences. They penetrate deep into your respiratory and circulatory systems, damaging your heart, lungs, and brain. They are invisible but utterly deadly.

Of course, once the match is lit it’s not just your own health that is compromised. In addition to the harm to your community from the combination of noxious fumes from yours and other chimneys, you’re also endangering your loved ones.

Smoke inside

It’s now estimated that up to 40% of emissions from open fires remain in the home. If you have children, live with older relatives, or anyone with a chronic disease, they are in particular danger of serious health damage.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that air pollution kills over 1,400 people in Ireland each year. Most are caused by tiny PM2.5 particles about 40 times smaller than grains of sand that are emitted from smoky fuels, including coal, turf and wet wood burned in people’s homes.

Heart disease and stroke are responsible for up to 80% of these deaths, but there are also fatalities from lung cancer, diabetes, kidney disease, liver disease and COPD.

If they don’t kill you these emissions can seriously damage your quality of life, triggering asthma, as well as skin and autoimmune diseases and inflammatory bowel disease.

It can cause infertility, miscarriage and developmental problems for unborn babies. They are also linked with impaired cognition and dementia.

Silent damage

Despite this appalling toll on the nation’s health, and its concentration among vulnerable citizens, the vast majority of Irish people are oblivious to the damage being done. Or that it is largely being caused by the smoky solid fuels we burn in our own homes.

A poll carried out for the Irish Heart Foundation and Asthma Society of Ireland by Ipsos MRBI found that just over one in ten Irish adults are aware that domestic fuel burning is Ireland’s major source of health-harming air pollution.

And only 42% knew that smoky fuels such as coal, turf and wet wood damages the health of those in the homes where it is burned.

This is a crucial piece of information for both the public and policymakers in the context of the consultation that is currently taking place on the new Solid Fuel Regulations for Ireland.

Who would not want to switch to cleaner fuel once they understand the full health impact their stove or open fire is having on themselves, their families and friends? And which policymakers would deny citizens the protection of a rapid move away from smoky fuels, once everyone is guaranteed access to an affordable alternative means of heating their homes?

Lack of will

Given what can be achieved through new regulations, the reaction to the consultation from some quarters has been depressing, if somewhat predictable. The narrative of the Government wantonly imposing needless new laws on a public that is punch drunk with Covid-related regulation is unfair and inaccurate.

Firstly, whilst greenhouse gas emissions have fallen due to reduced traffic volumes in the midst of the pandemic, there has been no corresponding reduction in PM2.5 emissions from domestic solid fuel burning. So a speedy end to the use of smoky fuels is needed as much as ever.

It’s true we must be careful that nobody, least of all vulnerable citizens, are penalised by the bans and transitions proposed in relation to various smoky fuels. But this is entirely possible once adequate financial provision backs up the political will that has finally pushed smoky fuel regulation to the point of no return.

Measures such as the introduction of a green transition fuel allowance, along with a rapidly accelerated retrofitting programme prioritising people in or at risk of fuel poverty can ensure that nobody is left behind without an affordable alternative means of heating their home.

But the commitment to ending the worst of the harm being wrought by air pollution is one of the better news stories of recent times. It provides a route map to remove a source of avoidable bereavement that is roughly ten times greater than the annual death toll on our roads.

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So please tell your politicians to do their jobs – because if they want to they can deliver regulation that benefits us all and penalises nobody.

Dr Tim Collins is a medical doctor and CEO of The Irish Heart Foundation. He worked as Special Advisor at the Departments of Health and Environment, working with Mary Harney when she introduced the first ban on smoky coal in 1990.

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