Smoke haze over Hobart

THE smoky haze from wood fires is Sydney’s biggest source of air pollution in winter, and wood smoke will add $8 billion to the health budget by 2030, says an independent report commissioned by the state government and kept secret for six months.

One of the options put forward by the report, produced by the environmental consultancy AECOM, is a tax on wood fuel that which would keep the cost of burning wood rising in line with the federal government’s carbon price.

Other options include tighter regulation in new development areas, a tax on wood-burning heaters, or a ban on the heaters phased in over several years.

With electricity prices expected to rise up to 40 per cent by 2014 due to new network infrastructure and the carbon price, the report said wood heaters would become cheaper by comparison.

‘‘Discretionary control measures may need to be considered to manage the undesirable outcomes, for example, a tax on wood fuel,’’ the report said.

The Office of Environment and Heritage, which commissioned the study, said it was yet to make a recommendation to the government.

The estimated $8 billion in avoidable health costs resulting from wood smoke was calculated using methods developed by the US Environmental Protection Agency and United Nations-sponsored research to measure the impacts of vehicle pollution.

The state’s 365,000 wood heaters release a range of very small particles, sometimes visible as a smoky haze in the air, that aggravate many medical conditions.

People with heart disease, lung disease, inflammation of the lungs, bronchitis or asthma are particularly affected. A study in 2010 by the Environment Department found wood smoke pollutants could also affect rates of cancer, birth defects and nervous system disorders.

The NSW Greens, who obtained the report under freedom-of-information laws, said the government should act quickly to minimise smoke.

‘‘The NSW government now knows the heavy price tag of doing nothing on wood smoke pollution,’’ the Greens MP Cate Faehrmann said.

‘‘Taking action now will literally shave millions off the NSW health budget for years into the future. The government now has a range of options to address the problem that are costed and ready to go. At the very least we need a freeze on new installations until new tougher standards are in place.’‘

The government said a survey had been sent to all councils at the end of last week, seeking input on new wood smoke control measures, but no decisions had been reached yet.

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