Wood is not going to be our friend this winter, and here is why

This blog’s approach to the issue of Air Quality is basically from the bottom up, from the “on my own skin” experience of the quality of air that we all have to breathe in our cities/villages on a particular day. In practical terms, it is an ongoing enquiry that starts at the moment we wake up in the morning with a simple question: can we open the windows to refresh the air this morning? Or shall we wait until a bit later, or better not to open them at all today? 

The answer to these three possible scenarios encompasses all issues relating to the Air Quality of all our cities and villages. 

Firstly, we need to remind that differently from any other source of energy that our bodies need in order to function normally, choosing which air to breathe is most often not an option, unfortunately. You can choose to eat healthy food (bio, vegetarian, etc.). You can choose what to drink. But you cannot choose to breathe clean air if there isn’t any around you, can you? And you can’t even stop breathing for a longer time as you would do with food, because your body simply doesn’t allow you to do so. Furthermore, most of us don’t even know that they are breathing dirty air, because air is invisible.

If you are offered a glass of dirty water, you first reaction is to reject it, because you can see that something is wrong and you immediately feel that it not going to do any good to your body. But with polluted air, the reaction is not as automatic because you can’t really see it. Hence you quickly forget and you go on to breathing it again and again.

Most of the times polluted air is not visible to our eye, and even if we can smell it, we don’t really pay attention to it, because we take the smell for granted. As a result, 99% of the world’s human population breathes polluted air nowadays.

Let’s now step back to the three window scenarios. Basically, in most of Greece we have two situations in regard to the opening of the windows at wake-up time: during late spring, summer and early autumn the answer is usually YES, I can open them, but in late autumn, winter and early spring the answer is definitely NOT.

The main culprit of this situation is wood. Or better, the burning of it. Second culprit is the use of old oil heaters, which unfortunately are rarely properly serviced and hence pollute the neighborhood more than necessary. 

But in terms of air pollution in our cities and villages, there is nothing as polluting as wood stoves and fireplaces.

The Airmageddon: a thick blanket of wood smoke covers Athens in a cold winter night.

Once Greeks start turning on their wood stoves by mid October, in the country begins what I call an Airmageddon that will last for 6 months. Wood smoke becomes a constant feature of our cities and villages. Some or most people find burning wood kind of cosy, because in a cold winter evening there is nothing nicer than sitting in front of a fireplace looking at its dancing flames. There is something primordial to this, and it is probably embedded in our genes, considering that we have been burning wood and other materials for over 200.000 years and we have evolved and progressed so much thanks to it. And exactly because we have done it for so long, people assume that it is normal and that it can’t be really a problem. 

The truth is that burning wood and breathing its smoke is highly unhealthy, and its practice has been making us sick and killed us prematurely throughout history. 

And the habit of burning stuff in general has brought us to change the atmosphere so much that we are now confronted with the global emergency of the climate crisis, which is threatening our very survival on the planet.

But why wood smoke is so unhealthy? How can it be, since wood is a natural element that grows all around us and has so many beneficial effects?

Well, the burning of wood unfortunately releases many substances that, once burnt, are not beneficial at all. The wood combustion is never complete, more so if the wood is wet or if it has been cut only recently, and its smoke contains hundreds of compounds that once inhaled start a cascade of problems in our body. A further problem with this is that the negative effects of breathing wood smoke (or any other kind of air pollution) are not immediately seen like when you drink contaminated water that immediately sends you to the toilet. That’s why air pollution is also called the “silent killer”, because its negative effects take years or decades to become visible, when they will eventually manifest themselves into a serious illness that might even send us to the grave prematurely. 

At this point we must stress that, globally, air pollution kills up to 9 million of people every year. It’s an epidemic in the make, because those are a lot of premature deaths. In comparison, COVID has killed “only” 6,5 millions in 3 years and the world went into a global lockdown because of it, but no government is going to do the same to stop air pollution from killing us. In Europe alone, 300.000 to 400.000 people die each year because of air pollution, and in Greece around 16.000. Air pollution is the largest environmental risk to public health and the fourth main reason of global death behind blood pressure, bad diet, and smoking. The economic costs of not dealing with Air Pollution are also huge. In 2018 Public Health England estimated that the costs of air pollution to health and social care services could reach between £5.3 and £18.6 billion in the UK between 2018 and 2035. In the EU, air pollution’s health related costs amount to 1276 Euro per citizen per year.

Children in particular are especially vulnerable to air pollution, which can directly lead to asthma in childhood and other health issues later on.

Air pollution particles have been found in fetuses’ blood and brain, indicating that not even in the mother’s womb children are safe from it. Children breathe faster and thus inhale larger quantities of air pollutants. Their organs and immune systems are still developing – therefore toxin-induced damage is likely having a bigger impact on them than on adults. For children in particular, there is no safe limit of air pollution.

Now imagine Greek children, who literally have to breathe wood smoke every single day for 6 months a year. Add to this the year-long polluted air they must breathe from the millions of old cars, trucks, buses, taxis – diesel fumes are especially dangerous – and motorcycles that circulate in the country. Try to envision the health damage that all this toxic air causes them. Nobody thinks about this, nobody tells us, and we simply keep on driving old cars and burning wood – actually more and more every year, as nothing were happening. But in fact, we are killing 16.000 Greeks every year with our addiction to burning wood and fossil fuels as well as causing cancer and other illnesses to many other thousands. Is this really the way we want to live in our cities?

Of particular concern is the fact that because of the energy crisis this coming winter we will burn so much more wood than the previous years. If you knew that your fireplaces are a direct cause of asthma for your child while also preventing his/her lungs to grow properly, as well as also inducing an overall inflammation in his/her body which will eventually lead to other illnesses later on in his/her youth and adulthood – from diabetes, to cardiovascular issues, including stroke – even autism in young children has been connected to air pollution, as well as a lower attention in class with lower academic results, etc. –  would you then still choose to light on your fireplace every day in winter? Or hopefully you would start to look out for cleaner alternatives, which are there but we don’t know about them?

Wood smoke is especially dangerous because it contains very large quantities of Particulate Matter PM2,5

PM2,5 are tiny particles less than 2,5 μm in size that are made up of hundreds of different chemical compounds, many of which are carcinogenic and/or highly irritant for our body. You can think of PM2,5 as tiny dust particles, the smallest of which can enter the body through the lungs and move directly into the bloodstream, moving to every organ in our body. Our immune system is not well trained to fight them because they are not living organisms like bacteria or viruses, so it won’t attack them effectively. Imagine millions of these toxic dust particles entering your body day after day, for your entire life. Sooner or later, there will be one too many of them. As a result, air pollution is one of the main culprits that cause chronic respiratory diseases in approximately 45 million people worldwide. Asthma is one of the largest contributors to global respiratory disease and affects about 21 million people. Many other million people suffer from heart issues and strokes, and many millions more develop dementia and Alzheimer in their later years of life, all because they have been breathing polluted air all along their life. Well, knowing all this, isn’t this a reason to stop burning wood and fossil fuels, at last, and embrace clean, sustainable energy sources? How many millions losses of lives and illnesses will we immediately prevent like that?

What if I told you that a modern wood stove emits 750 more particulate pollution than a modern big lorry?

Think now of all those ancient wood stoves that are still used everywhere in Greece. Well, they emit much, much more than that. That’s a huge amount of pollution that EVERY wood burning house emits every day. When in Athens there are hundreds of thousands of such stoves and fireplaces at work, and other millions in the remaining Greece, then the use of the term Airmageddon (the Armageddon of the air) is really appropriate. Each winter night we burn so much more wood than a summer wildfire does in a day, but we never think of that. In summer we are all so worried when forest fires strike, and we instinctively feel the need of protecting ourselves from their smoke, but in winter we burn as much wood and produce as much smoke every night, but we just forget that it’s dangerous too. How shortsighted can this be?

Going back to the question of opening or not the windows at wake-up time, there is an easy way for all of us citizen to know the answer.

Fortunately, as the scientific world has done so much research into the problem of air pollution during the past 15 years, also specialized Tech companies have done much work in the field and have developed solutions for us to easily know the air quality of our cities at any time of the day, in real time. Two particular companies have developed affordable air quality sensors that any citizen can buy and easily install at home: Purpleir.com and Airly.com. Both have created an online map on which their AQ Monitors are visible from all around the world. I have installed 6 of these sensors in various sites in Greece, and there are so many others from other citizens or municipalities, etc., which every one of us can look at in order to understand if the air outside is clean or not.

Air Purple Map with PM2,5 values of the Air Pollution of Athens in December 2021. The central and northern part of the Athens Plain (“Lekanopedio”) show toxic pollution levels due to wood smoke (purple dots). Note how other parts of Athens where people mostly use other sources of energy (natural gas) like Papagou and Vouliagmeni enjoy much cleaner air (green dots). The difference is staggering!

The data from the above Air Quality Maps is easily understandable and can immediately give us an idea of how the air is in our city anytime. We just need to have a look at them at wake-up time to see if we can open the windows or not. As simple as that. And by observing these AQ maps during the whole day we can then easily draw our own conclusions and subsequently adjust our activities in order to be exposed as little as possible to air pollution. When is the best time to take the children to the playground? Or to go out for jogging? Observing the AQ maps over a longer period of time even allows us to make our own predictions. In general, these maps are our best tool in order to protect ourselves from the long-term negative health effects of breathing polluted air. I think that this is a more than decent reason why we should all become accustomed to them. They even should be taught us in school. TV weather forecasts should adopt them too.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has reviewed the Air Quality guidelines last year, after almost 20 years. If before the recommended maximum level of PM2,5 pollution was 10 μg/m3, it has now been halved to 5 μg/m3 because so many recent studies show how air pollution is dangerous also at very low levels.

The EU has not reviewed its own guidelines yet (it should finally be done later this month, after so many years), which are still as high as 25 μg/m3. You can then understand how a whole continent air quality policy is set on very outdated guidelines that allow its countries to do close to nothing to improve their air quality. Greece is one of these countries that at present is doing nothing to improve things. That’s why the air quality in our cities is so bad. It’s dangerous, actually. There are parts of Athens that in winter are constantly chocking in wood smoke, and no municipality is addressing the problem. Whole cities like Ioannina, Florina, Larissa and Agrinio have such high toxic levels of wood smoke both at night and during the day, but no one is moving a finger to fix that! A small village of Messinia, Skala, has the record of the worst air of the country in winter because it is so unlucky to be placed in the Messinian plain that is covered with hundreds of thousands of olive trees, whose owners burn the residues of the olive collection during the whole winter. This, along with the smoke from the local wood stoves and olive oil factories, makes the air in Skala highly toxic during the whole winter. I really don’t know how people can survive there!

The villages of the green Messinian Plain north of Kalamata, like Skala, suffer from huge pollution events due to wood smoke from the villages, as well as from olive oil factories and the burning of olive tree residues after the olives have been collected. This is one of the most polluted areas of Greece in winter.
Skala’s PM2,5 weekly average in winter is around 50 μg/m3! That’s 10 times the WHO safe level. This is unacceptable.

The Purple Air Map shows lots of information on the Air Quality of our country. For example, it clearly shows how PM2,5 pollution easily raises to levels of 300 μg/m3 and even higher during cold winter nights in most of Greece. In Athens, during a normal winter day, these levels gradually go back down to around 50 μg/m3 and lower by wake-up time in the morning, but still the atmosphere is not clean enough in order to open the windows without allowing harmful pollution particles to entering into the house (remember that the “safe” level set by the WHO is 5 μg/m3). Only when at around 10:00 the breeze from the sea starts blowing over the city then the air becomes almost satisfactorily clean in order to open the windows. But then, after a just a couple of hours of relatively cleaner air, by late afternoon the Airmageddon kicks in again, feeding the silent killer’s vicious cycle once again…

Athens is actually luckier in this sense compared to Thessaloniki, Agrinio, Ioannina and other Greek cities, because in winter it is more windy and milder and therefore it often enjoys cleaner air during the day, even when at night so many thousands of wood stoves are lit up. Still, the yearly average of the various city’s compartments is three to six times higher than the WHO limits of 5 μg/m3, hence the inhabitants of Athens have no reason to feel better than those of Ioannina or Agrinio. Anything above 5 μg/m3 is clearly dangerous!

Winter Air Quality in Ioannina is among the worse in the whole country, due to the burning of wood in wood stoves and fireplaces. The fog that often covers the city due to the vicinity of the lake becomes then smog (smoke + fog).

I created the blog www.cleanairingreece.org in order to provide information to the readers about the air we breathe in Greece. The various air quality monitors that I placed in Athens and in other locations of Greece allow me to do my own observations and publish the results on the blog. One post about the air quality of Greece in winter can be found here: https://cleanairingreece.org/2022/01/05/we-all-live-downwind-winter-air-quality-in-greece/. More info about the issue are found in the other posts of the blog.

In general, I am very worried about the air we breathe here in Greece, especially in winter. The striking fact is that nobody seems to be aware or willing to accept that we have a really serious problem. Nobody seems to believe that wood smoke is a huge silent killer that also causes so many cancers, strokes, asthma, dementia and so many other illnesses. People think that because the Athens’ smog of the 80’s-90’s has been addressed, now we are ok. Nobody seems ready to accept that we have moved into another, even more dangerous, chapter of air pollution that began with the economic crisis of 2009 and never ended. And looking at the AQ data it is clear that things are becoming worse every year. 

Winter has now arrived. We are all worried about how we will manage to warm up our houses, because gas and electricity are so much more expensive than last year. So many have decided to adopt even more wood stoves, and as a result of the high demand wood has doubled and even tripled its price since last year. Those who have not foreseen this will probably end up paying the same price to warm up their house by using wood as if they did it by using only electricity. So we will now see a huge further increase of air pollution for no reason at all! That’s really sad. So many of us will get sick and more will die as a result of this rushed, bad planning.

The future of house warming is electricity, combined with good insulation. A heat pump uses as little energy as an air conditioning when the house is well insulated, so in a few years we will all have to move into this direction. Combined with solar panels and net metering, it is clear that this is what the world will soon adopt in order to de-carbonize our energy use. Fossil fuels such as heating oil and gas will become part of the past simply because they will be too expensive, but wood stoves and fireplaces will need serious, bold planning in order to be phased out. There are already some governments that encourage the replacement of wood stoves with heat pumps by giving big money incentives, and these programs are seriously improving the air quality of cities. It is clear that the Greek government will have to start such programs too, especially after this winter when we will have had to survive yet another huge Airmageddon. The data will be too clear, the world will be more aware of the problem, and things will start being finally mature for the switch to clean, renewable sources of energy and heat for our homes.

Athens does enjoy clean air in winter, mostly after a good rain and/or on windy days. This is the air that we deserve to breathe also during the remaining days of the year! We can’t waste any more time and we must start cleaning up our atmosphere by stopping the burning of fossil fuels and wood.

Further resources with important material on air pollution in Greece: 

  1. Wood smoke has been proven to be very dangerous for our health. The National Observatory of Athens has published a study about the problem here: https://acp.copernicus.org/articles/21/17865/2021/ and here: https://acp.copernicus.org/articles/21/17865/2021/acp-21-17865-2021-supplement.pdf
  2. Wood burning costs the EU 17 billion Euro in health costs a year: https://airqualitynews.com/2022/03/31/wood-burning-costs-europe-e17bn-in-health-costs-a-year/
  3. Greece – Air pollution country fact sheet (European Environment Agency – eea):https://www.eea.europa.eu/themes/air/country-fact-sheets/2021-country-fact-sheets/greecehttps://airindex.eea.europa.eu/Map/AQI/Viewer/ https://www.eea.europa.eu/themes/air/urban-air-quality/european-city-air-quality-viewer?twclid=21dxgad029iez6hztifw94068g
  4. A platform to observe the air quality of Athens: https://hsaq-eshape.eu.
  5. The Purple Air map to observe the air quality live allover the world in real time. My Purple Air AQ Monitor is in Thiseio, near the ones of the Asteroskopeio: https://map.purpleair.com/1/i/lb/mPM25/a0/p604800/cALT#17.96/37.974104/23.718374
  6. The Airly real time Map with air quality monitors, where you find also my (CleanAir in Greece) monitors in Aghios Germanos, Messolonghi and Athens: https://airly.org/map/en/
  7. Athens, along with many other cities around the world, is taking part to the C40 initiative to clean up its air, but unfortunately this is mostly on paper only. The city is doing nothing important to improve its air, unfortunately. See here: https://www.c40.org/cities/
  8. See an interactive map on which you find also a few Greek cities, and you can click on them to see the average pollution: https://www.stateofglobalair.org/resources/health-in-cities#pm_sub_2_5_sub_levels_vis_vis_who_guidelines
  9. A recent article that reports how air pollution is dangerous also at very low levels: https://www.science.org/doi/10.1126/sciadv.abo3381#.YzUwTmekyhs.twitter
  10. A very important study, the State of Global Air 2020: https://www.stateofglobalair.org and https://www.stateofglobalair.org/resources/health-in-cities?utm_campaign=Weekly%20AQ%20newsletter%20of%20Sotirios%20Papathanasiou&utm_medium=email&utm_source=Revue%20newsletter
  11. Report of the Air quality in Greece on the iQAir website: https://www.iqair.com/greece
  12. Health Impacts of Air Pollution in Europe 2021: https://www.eea.europa.eu/publications/air-quality-in-europe-2021/health-impacts-of-air-pollution
  13. Economic costs of Air Pollution in Europe (2020): https://epha.org/how-much-is-air-pollution-costing-our-health/
  14. EU Air Quality status 2022: https://www.eea.europa.eu//publications/status-of-air-quality-in-Europe-2022

Published by cleanairingreece

CleanAir in Greece is an independent site meant to inform the public about the day to day Air Quality in Greece, with advice on how to protect ourselves from the dangers of Air Pollution

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