A consumer survey by Asthma Foundation NSW reveals that almost 70 per cent of consumers were not aware of the impact of their heating choices on their health. Only a miniscule 7 per cent cited health as their main priority when choosing a model.

Asthma Foundation NSW is urging consumers to choose their winter heating options carefully after conducting the consumer survey.

The survey of 790 NSW consumers, primarily people living with asthma, shows only 1 in 3 people think their home heating choices will impact on their health. The main factors influencing choice were warmth (25 per cent) and whatever they had available in their homes (19 per cent). Surprisingly, only 21 per cent cited the cost of an appliance or fuel as an important factor in their choice.

The most popular forms of heating among respondents were: reverse cycle or ducted electrical heating (33 per cent), electric heating (17 per cent), unflued gas heaters (16 per cent) and wood/coal-burning (14 per cent).

Michele Goldman, CEO of Asthma Foundation NSW says the organisation was alarmed to discover how few made the link between heating appliances and health and therefore didn’t view health impact as a priority when making heating choices, particularly those with asthma using unflued gas heaters.

She explains that the estimated one million heaters are releasing into lounge rooms across Australia a toxic cocktail of gases, such as Nitrogen Dioxide, Carbon Monoxide and Formaldehyde and small particulate matter dubbed ‘the new asbestos’ by scientists. An estimated 90 per cent of gas heaters in New South Wales are unflued, and do not have a chimney or vent pipe diverting the toxins outside the house, forcing the gases to remain in the home.

Last year a Victorian coroner found that the presence of a high concentration of Carbon Monoxide from a faulty, unserviced unflued heater that was being operated in an unventilated room caused the deaths of Chase (8) and Tyler (6) Robinson. The coroner urged state-wide agencies to better educate people about the dangers of Carbon Monoxide and to have home appliances serviced every two years.

Professor Peter Sly, Deputy Director of Queensland Children’s Medical Research Institute has done extensive research into the effects of unflued heaters on health. Professor Sly says that Carbon Monoxide and Formaldehyde from these heaters can be deadly, but the Nitrogen Dioxide (NO2) they produce can also be hazardous to health with many scientific studies showing it can affect the respiratory system, even at quite low levels, and especially people with asthma, or respiratory and heart conditions.

A 2010 Woolcock Institute study into the school heaters in 51,000 NSW public schools concluded that ‘exposure to low NOX unflued gas heaters causes increased respiratory symptoms, particularly in atopic (hypersensitive to allergies) children… It is important to seek alternative sources of heating that do not have adverse effects on health’.

NSW is currently the only state in Australia to use unflued gas heaters in schools. Ms Goldman comments that an education campaign is urgently needed in NSW and the Foundation is keen to partner with the health authorities on easily accessible, scientifically verifiable information about how various types of heaters might affect health and how to operate them safely.

Asthma Foundation NSW recommends that people with gas heaters have a flue or vent fitted, which takes the harmful gases outside the house and that gas appliances be inspected by a licensed gas fitter at least every two years to prevent the kind of terrible tragedy that occurred in Victoria.

Rooms need to be cross-ventilated, by opening windows and/or doors, and gas heaters should never be used in bathrooms, caravans, or bedrooms, especially with sleeping children. Gas heaters also produce water vapour, resulting in increased humidity, mould and growth of other microorganisms, which can exacerbate asthma symptoms.

Ms Goldman urged all consumers to look again at their heating options, especially if they are living with asthma.