Health writer, editor and clean air advocate Penny Hosie says woodburning stoves should be taken seriously as an asthma trigger. Here she explains why
Several years ago, when my children were young, I visited my sister in Cornwall shortly after Christmas. It was a long drive and my eldest daughter, then aged 7, was at the tail end of a cold. However my sister assured me that her cats would be kept away from the bedrooms and main living area (cats made her feel wheezy) and she’d dusted and hoovered thoroughly. The scene seemed set for a lovely break.
However that first evening, after dinner, my daughter suddenly announced she felt unwell and was struggling to breathe. I took her for a drive and she felt better but not long after we returned she started to cough and was again struggling to breathe. After making the call to NHS Direct the paramedics were called and once the nebuliser stabilised her breathing they warned me not to stay there. I checked into a local hotel immediately, thinking everything would be ok.
The following night, after a bath, my daughter struggled to breathe again. The paramedics were again called, but it was very stressful as they took longer to arrive as it was New Year’s Eve. It was touch and go whether she required a hospital visit, so It won’t surprise you to hear that on our return to London an asthma inhaler was prescribed by the GP, alongside a spacer. We put it down to a cat allergy (later confirmed) although I also wondered if she’d reacted to cleaning agents in the hotel room, as there had been a strong smell when we’d arrived…
Fast forward a few years and I am now clued up on the variable factors that might trigger her asthma, including one we’d not previously considered: air pollution. We live in a busy south London suburb on a bus route and the PM2.5 particulates from diesel buses pollute the air.
However research for my recently published evidence-based piece for a journal into the impact of pollution on our bodies across the life course opened my eyes to a new potential trigger and I had what they call an ‘eureka’ moment. My investigations uncovered that wood burning is a huge polluter, emitting more harmful particulates than vehicles. I suddenly remembered that my sister had a wood burning stove – perhaps that had contributed to the first attack all those years ago?
As the Autumnal chill sets in more people are lighting their wood burning stoves. Some campaigners want to see them banned completely, but perhaps the public health conversation should start with a wider acceptance of the dangers that wood burning poses to health. To place this in an easily digestible context for parents visiting your asthma clinics with their child: a polluting wood burning stove in your street emits enough harmful PM2.5 particulates to equate to six HGV lorries travelling up and down your street 24/7.
Indeed as a clean air advocate I’d like wood burning to be considered as part of the continuing conversation on a wide variety of measures urgently needed to clean up the air, to improve health. In addition to educating parents on air quality health risks when attending clinics school nurses could also play a vital public health role by including wood burners as a potential trigger when drawing up medical care plans for children with asthma.
If we all make changes to our lifestyles by mindfully reducing our carbon footprint then perhaps in future years we will start seeing the benefits in terms of a reverse in the disturbing upward projectory of childhood asthma rates. We owe it to our children to take this health risk seriously.
Penny’s report, titled Air Pollution: the hidden killer in our midst, looks closely at the adverse effect pollution has on the body across the life course. It includes information on asthma and references the case of Ella Roberta Kissi-Debrah, the 9 year old London schoolchild who tragically died from asthma in 2013.