Wood burning in Scottish homes: air pollution exposure, behaviour change and health

The popularity of residential wood combustion has increased substantially in recent years in response to the increasing costs of fossil fuels, climate change mitigation policies and trends in interior design. On top of this general trend, recent inflation and increased costs of gas & electricity are likely to increase wood fuel use in 2022 and beyond.

Currently, over 95% of homes that burn wood have other forms of heating available, e.g. electricity and gas (DEFRA, 2020). In Scotland, there were estimated to be over 100,000 wood fuel users in 2015 (UK Government, 2016). Consequently, residential wood combustion has been identified as an important source of air pollution in Europe (Price- Allison et al., 2021). PM2.5 (particulate matter less than 2.5 µm) is a key metric for air pollution. In the UK it is estimated that 44% of PM2.5 emissions are from domestic combustion (UK Government, 2020).

This increase in use of domestic wood burning is of concern as exposure to air pollution is a major risk for human health with an estimated 6.7 million deaths globally every year (Global Burden of Disease Study, 2019). For the UK, estimates of the number of premature deaths from air pollution every year range from 15,000 (Global Burden of Disease Study, 2019) to 40,000 (Royal College of Physicians, 2016).

Reductions in indoor and outdoor air pollution from wood burning stoves is one key area that both the UK and Scottish Governments wish to tackle (UK Clean Air Strategy (2019), Cleaner Air for Scotland 2 air quality strategy (2021)). However, there is limited knowledge on the emissions and personal exposure to domestic wood burning within Scotland, and any proposed top-down changes will need to be accompanied by bottom-up behavioural changes (Holgate, 2017).

Therefore, the aim of this studentship is to evaluate the contribution of domestic wood burning to air pollution in (and around) Scottish homes and to explore behavioural solutions to reduce air pollution.

To achieve this, the proposed project objectives are to:

1. Explore the spatio-temporal variation in stove use in Scotland in relation to other key social and environmental variables.

2. Quantify emissions of key air pollutants (e.g. PM2.5, carbon monoxide (CO)) from wood burning stoves to both indoor and outdoor environments in Scotland.

3. Quantify the contribution of stove-use emissions to total personal air pollution exposure (e.g. PM2.5, CO) among different population groups (e.g. urban/rural, by age, etc).

4. Explore, with stove users, the acceptability of potential behavioural modifications to reduce air pollution emissions and exposures.

The student will engage with stakeholders including policymakers, stove users and health organisations throughout the project to support the development of guidelines to help reduce the impact of stove use on exposure to indoor and outdoor air pollutants.


This interdisciplinary project will utilise a combination of environmental and social science methodologies to generate novel understanding of the impact of domestic wood burning on air pollution in Scotland and to explore ways to reduce people’s exposure to improve human health. The potential methods used in the project are described below in relation to the specific project objectives:

Objective 1: To explore spatio-temporal variation in stove use by using geostatistical analysis to determine the key drivers of residential wood combustion in Scotland. This will include, for example, designing and using data from a nationally representative cross-sectional survey to explore people’s behaviours, attitudes and values relating to residential wood combustion and related health in Scotland.

Objective 2: Co-located indoor/outdoor measurements of air pollutants will be undertaken at selected homes in Scotland to quantify the contribution of residential wood combustion to ambient PM2.5 concentrations in Scottish cities, towns and villages. Instrumentation used will include, but are not limited to, optical particle counters and electrochemical sensors. Meteorological data will be collected at outdoor locations concurrently with air quality measurements. Depending upon the data collected, source apportionment may be undertaken to quantify the contribution of residential wood burning to local air pollution.

Objective 3: The student will train participants as citizen scientists to monitor their own exposure to air pollution using PM2.5 sensors and CO monitors. Exposure measurements will be paired with detailed time-activity diaries to explore the contribution of residential wood combustion to total air pollution exposure for stove users.

Objective 4: Building on Objective 3, the student will co-design behavioural interventions with stove users to assess the potential for behaviour modifications to reduce air pollution exposure from residential wood combustion. These could include, for example, stove avoidance or modification of stove use practices (e.g. wood type). These behavioural interventions will be targeted to reduce the air pollution exposures of, primarily, stove users, but also (where appropriate), the wider community.

The student will be supported by an interdisciplinary supervisory team including Dr Heather Price (environmental geographer, Biological and Environmental Sciences, University of Stirling), Dr Marsailidh Twigg (atmospheric chemist, UKCEH Edinburgh), Dr Sean Semple (exposure scientist, Institute for Social Marketing and Health, University of Stirling) and Dr Vivien Swanson (health psychologist, University of Stirling).

Project Timeline

Year 1

• Literature review and devise a work plan
• Collation and analysis of data on domestic wood burning in Scotland, including spatio-temporal secondary datasets and the design and analysis of a nationally representative survey
• Design of co-located indoor/outdoor air pollution field campaign in 2023
• Undergo training on operation of instrumentation and other training depending on the needs of the student
• Attendance at a national conference

Year 2

• Complete data analysis and manuscript on wood burning usage in Scotland
• Undertake co-located indoor/outdoor air pollution field campaign and carry out the associated data analysis
• Design citizen science study for personal exposure to air pollution
• Undergo training depending individual needs of the student
• Attend a national conference

Year 3

• Completion of data analysis and manuscript from co-located indoor/outdoor air pollution field study
• Carry out citizen science study and associated data analysis
• Carry out behaviour change study and associated data analysis
• International conference attendance

Year 3.5

Finalising data analysis, writing publications, thesis submission

& Skills

Both the University of Stirling and the UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology have high quality training programmes for postgraduate students, with the student being required to attend IAPETUS training and events throughout the PhD. The student will trained specifically on:

• Multi-disciplinarity: This research is at the interface between environmental science, social science and psychology. The student will receive training in working within interdisciplinary teams, and effectively communicating between disciplines.
• Fieldwork: The student will receive training in instrumentation and field deployment operations, as well as approaches to participatory research.
• Data management: The student will receive training in analysing large environmental datasets.
• Translating research into practice: The student will receive training to communicate their research to multiple audiences (e.g. policy makers, non-governmental organisations (NGOs), media and the wider public) and in publishing their work in scientific literature.

References & further reading

DEFRA (2020). Estimating UK domestic solid fuel consumption, using Kantar data. Available from: http://randd.defra.gov.uk/Document.aspx?Document=14973_AnnexeA-UKdomesticsolidfuelsuseestimatespaper.pdf. Accessed 28/10/2021.

GBD 2019 Risk Factors Collaborators (2020). Global burden of 87 risk factors in 204 countries and territories, 1990–2019: a systematic analysis for the Global Burden of Disease Study 2019. Lancet. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/S0140-6736(20)30752-2.

Holgate, S.T. (2017) ‘Every breath we take: the lifelong impact of air pollution’ – a call for action. Clin. Med. DOI: https://doi.org/10.7861/clinmedicine.17-1-8.

Price-Allison et al. (2021). The Impact of Fuelwood Moisture Content on the Emission of Gaseous and Particulate Pollutants from a Wood Stove. Combust Sci Technol. DOI: 10.1080/00102202.2021.1938559.

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