Your home and your lungs

Heating, cooking and indoor air quality

Cookers, heaters, stoves and open fires can release pollutants into your home.

Types of pollutants include:

  • Particulate matter (PM) – microscopic particles of dust and dirt in the air
  • Gases – carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, sulphur dioxide

Once these pollutants are in your home, it's essential to air your home with fresh air from the outside to dilute and remove them.  Inhaling any smoke is harmful. For this reason, gas heaters and cookers that have a flue, chimney, or other kind of vent that allows air into your home, are better. Chimneys from solid fuel stoves and fireplaces need to be cleaned and swept regularly by a registered sweep. 

Burning wood and coal in a stove or on an open fire releases particulate matter. PM can irritate your nose and throat, giving you a cough or breathing problems. PM can also make the symptoms of people living with asthma or COPD worse. It also causes early deaths from lung and heart disease.

If you have asthma, your symptoms might get worse. If you have COPD, it makes you more likely to have a flare-up. In the long term, your risk of getting lung cancer is also increased from burning coal or wood.

If you live in an urban area, burning wood or coal, will add to outdoor urban air pollution. Open fires produce the greater emissions than stoves. Research has measured particles from wood burning in winter in the UK’s urban air, mainly at weekends, with wood burning accounting for between 7% and 9% of London’s wintertime particle pollution. Studies have also shown that smoke from wood heating enters neighbouring homes too. UK researchers have suggested that wood burning in densely populated areas may lead to PM exposures comparable to those from traffic sources. Ask your local council’s environmental health department to find out if you live in a smoke control area. Smoke control areas cover the UK’s largest cities. If you do live in a smoke control area, this will restrict what you can burn and the types of stove you can use. 

Carbon monoxide

The most dangerous pollutant is carbon monoxide, which can kill you. It’s a poisonous gas with no smell or taste. Carbon monoxide is created when fuels like gas, oil, coal or wood don’t burn fully. It’s important to make sure cooking and heating appliances are serviced regularly, and that vents and chimneys are not blocked. Although carbon monoxide does not have a smell, if an appliance isn’t working properly it may produce more soot.

If you have mild carbon monoxide poisoning, the first symptom you might notice is a headache. You might also notice flu-like symptoms, but without the temperature.

If several people in one building develop flu-like symptoms without a temperature, then it could be due to a carbon monoxide leak – so act immediately.  

What can I do?

  • Make sure all your gas appliances are regularly maintained by a certified engineer.
  • Install extractor fans over your gas stoves and ranges, and always use them.
  • Avoid open fires and wood-burning stoves. If you can, use gas or electricity to cook and to heat your home.
  • If you must burn coal or wood, make sure the chimneys are inspected and swept regularly by a HETAS qualified sweep.
  • If you’re thinking about buying a wood-burning stove, please think about the outdoor air pollution it will cause to your neighbours’ air quality and to the quality of the air entering your own home. And if you go ahead, choose a modern, lower-emission one. Only burn dry, unpainted, untreated wood. Don’t burn rubbish or packaging as this can create toxic substances.
  • Install alarms for smoke and carbon monoxide - these are separate alarms. Check the batteries regularly.
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Last medically reviewed: September 2015. Due for review: September 2018

This information uses the best available medical evidence and was produced with the support of people living with lung conditions. Find out how we produce our information. If you’d like to see our references get in touch.