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Covered in wood smoke

A new study has investigated the health impacts and costs of using biomass for power and heat production, concluding that tens of thousands of EU citizens are dying prematurely every year as a result of exposure to air pollution from burning solid biomass. Other health impacts include cancers, cardiac and respiratory disease, asthma attacks and working days lost due to ill health.

One focus was on 27 biomass burning power plants in the EU, ten of which were former coal power stations converted to run on biomass or to be co-fired with a mixture of biomass and coal. The former coal plants accounted for the bulk of the negative health impacts, due for example to their much greater size and higher levels of sulphur dioxide emissions, which were largely linked to continued coal burning at co-fired sites. More than 1300 people are dying prematurely each year as a result of exposure to air pollution from the 27 facilities considered.

Expressed in financial terms, the health costs linked to biomass burning for power generation run into billions of euros each year, with health costs associated with emissions from former coal and co-fired plants amounting to 137,000 euros per year on average for every megawatt of electrical capacity installed.

Evidence of the health impact of air pollution from the use of biomass in small-scale domestic heating in the EU was also reviewed. According to one study, exposure to smoke from domestic biomass burning led to 40,000 deaths across the EU in 2014. In addition to these premature deaths, there were more than 130,000 cases of bronchitis, more than 20,000 respiratory and cardiac hospital admissions, a million asthma symptom days for children aged 5–19, 43 million restricted activity days and 10 million working days lost. All because of exposure to fine particles from domestic biomass emissions.

The report “Covered in smoke – Why burning wood threatens the health of Europeans” (January 2018), by M. Holland. Published by FERN. Link:


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