Homeowners will be stopped from buying coal and wet wood logs from next year as part of a Government clampdown on toxic air pollution.
An estimated 2.5million homes in the UK have hearths with open fires or woodburning stoves.
But from 2021, traditional coal and wet wood, used by thousands across Britain, will be phased out amid concerns that tiny pollutant particles emitted when they burn can lead to serious health conditions.
Wet wood logs have not been purposefully dried out to reduce their moisture content after being chopped down or collected.
The move could force scores of households to switch to more expensive alternatives – with critics last night warning that some would be left unable to heat their homes.
The new rules will only apply to the sale, distributing and marketing of wet wood – and it will not be illegal to own or burn wet wood after the cut-off date, whether from your garden or a shop.
An estimated 2.5million homes in the UK have hearths with open fires or woodburning stoves
Burning wet wood and coal in homes emits huge amounts of minuscule pollutants, known as PM2.5, which can penetrate deep into the lungs and blood.
When alight, they let off 38 per cent of the total PM2.5 pollution in the UK – more than road transport and industry combined, according to government figures.
The particles – each one 28 times smaller than the width of a human hair – can cause or aggravate asthma, strokes, lung cancer and heart disease.
Bags of wet wood logs are currently on sale in DIY stores, garden centres and petrol stations. Wood is considered dry when its moisture content is below 20 per cent.
Instead of using wet wood and coal homeowners will be instructed to burn dry wood or smokeless fuel instead – both of which are much more expensive.
Around 2.5million tons of logs are sold in the UK each year, of which 90 per cent are wet wood. Around 350,000 tons of house coal are burnt each year.
Smoke coming from a chimney in the Yorkshire Dales (file picture)
Last night, critics of the new rules warned that the change could mean some Britons would have to spend far more heating their homes.
How 25% moisture content means wood logs are considered wet
Wood logs are considered wet when the moisture content is above 25 per cent.
A rough guide to seeing if your logs are too wet to burn is to knock two pieces together — if they make a dull thud, then there is too much water for a fireplace.
Wet wood will also result in too much smoke and a build-up of creosote inside the fireplace and flue. If you need to dry out wet wood, then it is best to split it into smaller pieces and then air dry for the spring and summer.
It is advised to dry wet wood for up to 18 months before it reaches the ideal moisture content.
Those who want a more precise measurement can also use a digital moisture meter (below) which can be bought for about £20.
The instruments generally have two pins which can be pushed into a piece of firewood to give a reading, and different calibration scales for various wood species for more precise figures.
There is also what is called the ‘soap test’, which sees people rub washing up liquid on one end of the wood before blowing through the wood from the other end. If bubbles can be seen, then the firewood is dry.
Ian Gregory, an independent lobbyist for the fuel industry, said: ‘This is appalling news for the rural poor.
‘Nearly four million people are off the gas grid in the UK. Many of them keep their homes warm with coal because they can’t afford briquettes which cost twice as much.
‘As they won’t be able to pay for briquettes they will use readily accessible wet wood which is far more polluting than coal. People will freeze in their homes and there will be no reduction in harmful emissions.’
Wet wood is not only more polluting, it can lead to chimneys needing to be swept more often.
The government’s Clean Air Strategy aims to reduce particulate matter emissions by 30 per cent by 2020.
A recent report by King’s College London measuring local concentrations, found that wood burning accounts for up to 31 per cent of the urban derived PM2.5 in London.
Environment Secretary George Eustice said: ‘Cosy open fires and wood-burning stoves are at the heart of many homes up and down the country, but the use of certain fuels means that they are also the biggest source of the most harmful pollutant that is affecting people in the UK.
‘By moving towards the use of cleaner fuels such as dry wood we can all play a part in improving the health of millions of people.
‘This is the latest step in delivering on the challenge we set ourselves in our world-leading Clean Air Strategy.
‘We will continue to be ambitious and innovative in tackling air pollution from all sources as we work towards our goal to halve the harm to human health from air pollution by 2030.’
Bags of traditional house coal will be phased out by February 2021, and the sale of loose coal direct to customers via approved coal merchants by February 2023.
This will give industry, suppliers and households the time to adapt to the new rules, the Government said.
Environment Secretary George Eustice (pictured outside Downing Street on February 13) said it was important for everyone to ‘play a part in improving the health of millions of people’
Wet wood in units of under 70 cubic feet (2 cubic metres) will be restricted from sale from February 2021, and this will allow existing stocks to be used up.
Professor Stephen Holgate, Royal College of Physicians’ special adviser on air quality, said: ‘We know that air pollution causes significant health issues across the life course.
‘It is key that the Government does everything it can to improve the air we all breathe. Today’s announcement on domestic burning is a welcome step forward, and will in time, play a role in reducing the pollution associated with PM2.5.
‘Inhaling combustion particles from any source is harmful, but more so than ever when it’s directly within your home.
‘Burning coal for heat and power has to stop and strong guidance is needed to insist that if wood is burnt in approved stoves, it is non-contaminated and dry.’
John Maingay, Director of Policy and Influencing at the British Heart Foundation, said: ‘Wood and coal burning accounts for 40 per cent of harmful levels of background PM2.5 in the UK, and our research has shown that toxic PM2.5 can enter the bloodstream and damage our heart and circulatory system.
‘Phasing out sales of coal and wet wood is a vital first step towards protecting the nation’s health from toxic air. This is a welcome move from a Government showing its ambition and commitment to tackling air pollution.
‘However, we must not stop there. Air pollution is a major public health challenge, and it requires an urgent and bold response.’