Health Hazards Caused by Peat Biofuel Combustion are Minimal in Tartu

Orru et al. (2009) investigated the potential health impacts of the increased combustion of peat biofuel in Tartu, Estonia, by calculating the dispersion and deposition of particulate matter emissions and estimating the number of years of life lost (YLL) caused by such emissions.  Using the AEROPOL model and AirQ software to illustrate and identify the effects on health, the researchers concluded that peat biofuel combustion caused an average of 55.5 YLL each year per 100,000 individuals.  However, this value was marginal in comparison to their estimated value of 1539 years of life lost from all environmental sources of pollution in Tartu each year.  Thus, they concluded that the hazards to human health caused by increased emissions from peat biofuel production were insignificant when compared with overall particulate matter emissions from traffic pollution and local heating.—Christiana Mainero
Orru, H.,  Kaasik, M., Merisalu, E., Forsberg, B., 2009. Health impact assessment in case of biofuel peat—Co-use of environmental scenarios and exposure-response functions.  Biomass and Bioenergy 33, 1080-1086.

Orru et al. sought to assess whether or not the transition from gas to peat biofuel combustion would seriously impact the health of individuals due to potential changes in air quality.  To calculate and estimate these effects, their model included the following measurements: a calculation of emissions, an assessment of the ambient air quality, the identification of at-risk individuals, and a quantification of the health effects.  Because peat content varies widely in composition, which can affect its health implications, they determined the percentages of ash, sulfur, trace elements, and heavy metals prior to conducting the study.  The AEROPOL model was used to calculate the average emission of pollutants from boiler houses.  The researchers created dispersion maps and compared them with population density information to determine the boundaries of the exposure area near the boiler houses.   The AirQ software then calculated the average YLL in the area.  To assess base-line air quality, Orru et al. conducted official air pollution monitoring of PM, S02, NO2, and CO emissions in five different areas throughout the city.
The results of this study demonstrated that the most health hazardous emissions from the boiler houses, the PM2.5 emissions, dispersed in a fairly small area and persisted for only a short period of time.  According to the researchers, the mean annual pollutant concentrations from other sources were well over 20 times higher than those from boiler houses.  For those individuals in the more highly exposed areas, the calculated YLL per year was 36, while it was 19.5 for those outside the exposed area.  However, these values seem almost negligible when considering the fact that the total YLL induced by all pollution sources each year has an estimated value of 1539.  The concentrations of S02, CO, and 03 from the boiler houses were low. 
However, the researchers noted that there were some shortcomings in their analysis.  For example, the air quality in Tartu was measured only once each year over a two-week period, which may not have allowed the most accurate characterization of air quality.  Additionally, the 95% confidence interval on the YLL was large, which was partially due to the fact that YLL was determined by a number of different factors.  Although there were some uncertainties associated with this study, the researchers concluded that the YLL caused by peat burning was not a significant threat to air quality or human health.

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