Worst London air pollution in six years as home fires burn

<span>Photograph: Jeppe Gustafsson/Rex/Shutterstock</span>
Photograph: Jeppe Gustafsson/Rex/Shutterstock

Last weekend, air pollution in London reached the top value of 10 on the UK government’s index. Greatest concentrations were measured in the southwestern suburbs. This was London’s worst air pollution since January 2017.

These short episodes of air pollution have an impact. A five-year study of 1.2 million Londoners published in 2021 found a rise in GP respiratory consultations and inhaler prescriptions after short increases in air pollution. This was more pronounced in children and persisted for at least a week.

Home wood burning played a large role in the pollution peaks last weekend, according to data from Imperial College London on the chemical composition of the particle pollution in London, especially during the evenings. Analysis of the soot particles that Londoners were breathing showed that between 60% and 70% came from wood or solid fuel heating. Averaged over the whole year, home fires in the UK produce more particle pollution than the exhaust of all traffic on our roads.

And yet enforcement and control remains ineffective. Dr James Heydon, of the University of Nottingham, has been researching the way in which the legal controls on home fires have failed to address this problem. These laws include smoke control areas (SCAs) or smokeless zones that were devised in the 1950s and cover most UK cities. In these areas, people who burn solid fuel have to use a certified appliance or burn smokeless fuel. In an SCA, burning wood on an open fire is illegal.

Heyden’s research included freedom of information requests to local councils and interviews with council staff. A sample of 30 councils revealed 2,524 complaints about chimney smoke between 2014 and 2020. Despite this volume of complaints, only two councils had taken court action, a total of four cases over six years.

Heydon said: “There are myriad of practical difficulties, including responding to complaints out of hours, being able to see ‘smoke’ at night, and gathering enough evidence to determine its origin from an ‘uncertified’ source. These problems are compounded by recent efforts at making enforcement easier.”

Laws should not have to be enforced by court action to be effective but adherence requires people to know about them. A survey conducted for Defra found that 46% of stove users in SCAs did not know if their solid fuel stove was approved for use. One in10 people burning wood in SCAs knew that their stove was not approved. This points to a need for better public information.

Wood and solid fuel is the most polluting way to heat a home, especially with an open fire. An outdated set of rules along with poor information and enforcement may have allowed home heating with wood and solid fuel to become normalised behaviour. Without more action, it will be very difficult for the UK to meet future targets to reduce air pollution.