Leeds Ecosystem, Atmosphere & Forest (LEAF) Centre

Combustion of residential solid fuels pollutes ambient air

March 5, 2016

The burning of solid fuels in homes across Asia, Africa and Eastern Europe may be causing up to 800,000 premature deaths per year.

A new study from LEAF scientists in the School of Earth and Environment, investigated the impacts of residential solid fuel combustion on ambient air.

Wood burning

“Nearly three billion people burn wood, animal and agricultural waste and coal in open fires or rudimentary cook stoves to meet their basic energy requirements. Reliance on these polluting cook stoves and fuels leads to a wide variety of health, social and environmental problems,” explains Ed Butt, PhD student in the School of Earth and Environment and lead author on the study.

Using a detailed computer simulation of the atmosphere, the LEAF researchers were able to simulate what happens when the gases and particles emitted by residential cooking make it into the ambient air.

The researchers found that emissions from solid fuel burning lead to elevated levels of particulate material (known as PM) in the atmosphere.

Inhaling the particulate pollution generated by fires can have serious implications for human health, causing cardiopulmonary diseases and lung cancer. By calculating how emissions from different sources alter the level of pollution in the atmosphere, scientists can evaluate how dangerous they are for human health. The results from this study indicate that residential solid fuel burning is causing between 100,000 and 800,000 deaths each year across the world.

“Governments across Asia in particular should really be taking this emission source seriously, and considering mitigation strategies such as the introduction of clean cook stoves, and clean, affordable energy – such as natural gas and electricity,” explained Ed. “These have potential to reduce dependence on the dirty fuels that the poor depend on, and which cause them to suffer poor health.”

As well as examining the impact of these emissions on human health, the study quantified the effect on the global climate. The authors found that there is so much uncertainty associated with the optical characteristics of this pollution that it is difficult to confirm whether it is having a warming or cooling impact on the climate, and much more research needs to be done.

The study was partly funded by one of LEAF’s charitable partners, the United Bank of Carbon.

Post by Cat Scott – University of Leeds.