Feature: The psychology of woodburning: Why we do it and how to stop

Editor Chloe Coules explores why people choose to burn wood in their homes and how psychology can help us develop interventions for this dangerous behaviour.  This was originally featured in our September issue of Air Quality News magazine, which can be found here

The warm glow of a fire is a sight that fills many of us with feelings of safety and comfort, but we often overlook the dangers of burning wood, with disastrous consequences for air quality and our health.

According to research from King’s College London, woodburning accounts for between 23 and 31% of fine particulate matter (PM2.5) emissions in major cities like London and Birmingham.

PM2.5 is one of the most dangerous pollutants for our health, causing short-term effects such as eye, nose, throat and lung irritation, coughing, sneezing, runny nose and shortness of breath upon exposure.

Fine particles can also affect lung function and worsen medical conditions such as asthma and heart disease, with long-term exposure associated with increased rates of chronic bronchitis, reduced lung function and increased mortality from various types of cancer and heart disease.

For every 10 microgram per cubic meter (µg/m³) of increased exposure to PM2.5, the risk of dying from any cancer rises by 22%, according to researchers at the University of Birmingham.

This makes the health burden of woodburning a major issue, with research by the European Public Health Alliance finding that wood-based home heating costs Europe €17bn a year in health-related costs to society.

With research giving us a greater understanding of the dangers of woodburning, we are left questioning – why do people still turn to wood to heat their homes and how can we stop it?

Why do people burn wood?

With the cost-of-living continuing to rise and energy prices spiralling out of control, there is speculation over whether people may turn to cheaper heating methods like woodburning to stay warm this winter.

Professor Don Hine, Head of School for Psychology at the University of Canterbury, has conducted research on why people burn wood in Australia for many years, and he found that one of the main oppositions to phasing out wood was the financial implications.

‘When we were dealing with this issue in Australia, one of the views that was expressed on a regular occasion was that any attempt to phase out wood heating would disadvantage the lower socioeconomic status individuals living within the town, and that was taken seriously,’ says Professor Hine.

He suggests that we could see an increase in people burning wood out of necessity as energy prices spike, but this would cost the country more in the long term.

black fireplace near couch

‘Wood heating could go up in this day and age if alternative sources become prohibitively expensive,’ he adds. ‘Ultimately that’s going to be bad for people’s health and probably will end up costing the country more than if the government invested in subsidies that would allow people to make the transition or that allowed them to access energy in a slightly less expensive way.’

However, research suggests that despite wood being a cheap source of heat, the majority of people who do burn wood in their homes in the UK do not do it because they need to, but rather because they want to.

Over the last year, Impact on Urban Health has been collecting data on why people burn wood in the UK, with the aim of designing behavioural interventions to tackle woodburner use.

Rachel Pidgeon, Portfolio Manager for the Health effects of air pollution programme at Impact on Urban Health, tells Air Quality News that the majority of people who burn wood indoors live in cities and, of those, most of them are not burning wood out of necessity.

‘Evidence from Defra shows most people are burning wood for leisure or for aesthetic purposes – for this nice, cosy, warm feeling – and that feels to us like it’s just another area where air quality becomes a social justice issue. It’s the wealthiest people who are burning wood, but everyone experiences the consequences.’

Research by Kantar Public, which was supported by Impact on Urban Health, has found that people have strong emotional responses to woodburning – even those who do not do it themselves.

They found positive associations between woodburning and environmental benefits, like being low carbon and locally sourced.

‘Even among non-burners, people really appreciate the appeal of fire and loads of us can relate to that,’ says Rachel Pidgeon.

Professor Don Hine adds: ‘Because many people that grew up in colder climates often grew up with open fires and have strong positive emotional associations with those fires, they tend to be quite deep seated.

‘When you interview people about their wood heaters, as we did in Australia more than 15 years ago, people would talk in glowing terms about just how much they love the feel of the heat that comes off those woodburners, and many of them had positive emotional associations and memories from their youth of sitting in front of the fire.

‘You could probably even go back to evolutionary history, in hunter gatherer times where people would gather around the fire and that would be a place of warmth and safety, so it is deeply ingrained in us.’

Woodburning is also often seen as a personal choice, according to Rachel. ‘[Even] for people who were more receptive to health messages and to the negative impacts of woodburning, there’s still a real hesitancy to challenge the behaviour because it is seen as something that you are doing within your home – it’s your choice. I think as soon as you are getting into people’s personal spaces, that’s another kind of nuance around this.’

In Professor Hine’s research, the people with the strongest positive emotional associations with those burners were also people who perceived far less health risks than others and were most reluctant to trade in for alternative heating sources.

Like in Professor Hine’s research, Impact on Urban Health found burners and people who aspired to burn wood struggled to believe that it came with health risks.

fire wood burning in fire pit

For many burners, personal experience outweighs health warnings, according to Rachel. ‘Many people who fall into the burner category have been doing it for years without experiencing direct health consequences, and that ties to more generally when we are talking about air pollution as a health issue, that sometimes it’s almost a few steps removed. For many people there isn’t an immediate impact, it’s over the course of a lifetime or at key stages in your life.’

‘Our research found that people don’t naturally or immediately link burning wood indoors to being harmful or link it with air pollution at all, in comparison to things like transport and industry where people are much more aware of the fact that those areas are linked with pollution,’ explains Rachel.

How do we stop it?

With these psychological barriers in mind, researchers and campaigners have been developing interventions to reduce wood burner use and improve air quality and health.

Due to the strong opinions that people hold about woodburning, Rachel advises that any interventions should avoid calling out behaviours directly, as this can backfire leading to defensiveness.

She explains that tone is crucial and needs to reflect that this is the start of an ongoing conversation, informing and explaining about the issue without coming across judgemental.

Due to low awareness of the health impacts of woodburning and emotional attachment, Impact on Urban Health’s research concluded that people respond better to fact-based approaches that do not play on emotions.

‘Data really helped challenge preconceptions that wood burning is harmless, and it tended to lead to engagement and a desire to learn more,’ says Rachel.

‘Emotional platforms on the other hand generated a really strong pushback,’ she adds.

Who delivers the message also plays a role in whether people will listen. Impact on Urban Health’s research found that burners and non-burners were cynical about government messaging, and independent NGOs with public health interests or invested celebrities like David Attenborough or Michael Mosley were best placed to raise awareness.

It is also important to tailor messaging to different groups with different attitudes towards woodburning. Rachel explains that it is a different issue in urban and rural areas, and there is a lot more acceptance of the need for action in cities, so messaging should reflect this.

Targeting people before they start woodburning has the most potential for immediate impact, according to Rachel: ‘What the research really reinforced was the most potential for impact quickly lies in preventing new take up among non-burners.’

Prof Hine adds that for the most passionate woodburners, other solutions may have a greater effect in the short-term: ‘You have to recognise that there are some segments of the population that are really hard to reach and don’t want to take the time or energy to learn how to use their wood heaters more effectively. For those types of individuals at least, maybe a simple technological solution would be a better option for them.’

Ultimately, raising awareness will not be enough unless it is backed up by more robust measures.

‘Raising awareness is a real starting point, so that’s where we are focusing initially, but it’s not going to be enough unless it’s reinforced by other interventions like targeted marketing and point of sale interventions or ultimately hopefully increased regulation and policies,’ says Rachel.

Professor Hine reflects that persuading people to change is hard work, so a more effective strategy would be to ban wood heaters if there is political will.

With more evidence stacking up about the dangers of woodburning, especially in urban and vulnerable communities, public health messaging is needed as a crucial first step to scrapping these harmful sources of heat.

Photo by Annie Spratt


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1 year ago

As I said, about “a more effective strategy would be to ban wood heaters if there is political will”, it’s not likely to happen is it? In France there is a move towards replacing log burners with pellet stoves. Would that help here? Do pellet stoves make significantly less air pollution?

Darlene Deutch
Darlene Deutch
1 year ago
Reply to  chris

Hi Chris, pellet stoves are not much better, they still emit toxic benzene, PHA’s, CO2 and more. They still compromise air quality causing polluted communities.And deforestation to produce pellets is causing erosion and floods.

1 year ago
Reply to  Darlene Deutch

Thank you, none of it is good then. Unfortunately the UK seems to be going down the road towards even more biomass burning and Drax is still receiving those enormous financial subsidies. i checked with our electricity supplier yesterday where our power comes from as their website talks about renewables in a very vague way. The person I rang went to check and confirmed that they too are using biomass now, but not a lot they said …. tbey sounded surprised. The burning is everywhre now and the notion that it is carbon-neutral and sustainable is nonsense.

1 year ago

“a more effective strategy would be to ban wood heaters if there is political will” – really? I can’t see that happening can you? Perhaps pointing out the very serious health risks and results would be preferable? Like the old campaign to discourage school children from cigarette smoking.

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