Researchers at the University of New England are beginning the second phase of a three-year study that is taking a novel approach to the reduction of wood smoke pollution in Armidale.
The UNE researchers, in collaboration with Armidale Dumaresq Council, SmartBurn Australia, the Australian Home Heating Association (AHHA), and the Firewood Association of Australia (FAA), hope to involve 400 Armidale households in the study, which has received funding from the Australian Research Council.
“Our aim is to evaluate the effectiveness of two types of strategies – one educational and one technological – for reducing wood smoke pollution in Armidale,” said UNE’s Associate Professor Don Hine, one of the chief investigators on the project.
Once the participants – all households that use wood heaters on a regular basis – have been recruited, they will be randomly assigned to one of four groups. The first group will be given educational materials, provided by the project’s industry partners, containing “best practice” advice about firewood purchase and storage and wood heater operation. The second group will be given the SmartBurn device – a small canister that can be placed in wood heaters to improve combustion, reducing particulate emissions by up to 50 per cent. This will be the first large-scale field test of SmartBurn. The third group will receive both the educational materials and SmartBurn, and the fourth group will not be given anything (but will receive the educational materials and SmartBurn at the end of the study).
At the beginning of the trial, which will start in June, a survey of the participants – taking less than 30 minutes to complete – will assess their knowledge, attitudes and behaviours relating to wood smoke mitigation, and also their perception of health risks associated with wood smoke pollution. The trial will run for about three months, and the participants will be surveyed again after the end of the trial.
The researchers will monitor the participants’ chimneys for particulate emissions both before and after the trial, and in this way will be able to link changes in emission levels with both the respective test condition, and any changes in attitude or behaviour. The research team has recruited several research assistants, who have already had their first training session with FAA.
Dr Hine said that participants in the study would remain anonymous, and their identities would not be revealed in the project report. “Our report will not include individual case studies, but will focus on the overall picture,” he explained.
In the first phase of the project, begun last year, the researchers conducted focus groups with people representing a broad cross-section of the local community to get their opinions about the perceived magnitude of the wood smoke pollution problem in Armidale, and the best way of managing the problem. They plan to conduct focus groups with local GPs soon. “The educational materials we have developed specifically address the physical and psychological barriers to modifying the use of wood heaters that were revealed through the focus groups,” Dr Hine said.
He emphasised that the study was “not about banning wood heaters”. “Although wood smoke pollution is a serious problem in Armidale, it is important to acknowledge that there are benefits associated with wood burning, and that a substantial proportion of the community are strongly attached to their wood heaters,” he said. “We want to see if we can create a win-win situation, where those who choose to use wood heaters can continue to do so, while at the same time reducing overall wood smoke levels in the community to an acceptable level.”
Wood heater users interested in participating in the study should contact Dr Navjot Bhullar at UNE on (02) 6773 2546, or e-mail her at: firstname.lastname@example.org.