Biomass boilers burning crops and wood are being hailed as a sustainable green alternative, but as more are developed in Birmingham there are fears their waste gases could aggravate breathing problems. Neil Elkes reports.

Darren Plester is used to gazing out of the back window of his Kingstanding home and looking over vast school playing fields.

All that changed last year when the North Birmingham Academy started putting up its new school building next to his back garden.

As well as having his view forever altered, Mr Plester fears that a biomass boiler being installed will throw out unhealthy amounts of soot and dust, increasing pollution and exacerbating the breathing problems which his elderly parents suffer.

His neighbours, many of whom have family members with asthma and conditions such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), are also worried.

A map, produced by the city council, shows that a cluster of homes in Perry Common Road and Abingdon Road could see a major increase in pollution once the boiler is fired up.

At first, Mr Plester, a council worker, was quite supportive of the green energy system.

“I thought this is cutting edge new green technology which must be good for the environment. But then I found out that someone in the council’s environmental health department had concerns about the pollution.

“Both my parents have breathing difficulties, with asthma and with COPD. Dust particles aggravate them, they sleep with the window open which was fine when we backed onto the playing field.

“Now we are the closest property to this boiler and I am worried that this condition will worsen. I don’t know why they have not looked at other green energy systems, such as ground source heating systems.”

His neighbour Margaret Rake said: “My husband Thomas has COPD. This is already a highly polluted area, we have the motorway, busy roads, this will just make things worse. And this is happening at all the schools in Birmingham.”

There are currently 13 major biomass boilers either proposed or being installed in schools and major public buildings in Birmingham.

Wood and other crops are burned to provide heat, but they have a chimney, which despite being fitted with a filter, still throws out a certain amount of soot and dust.

The residents’ case was taken up by Councillor Des Hughes (Lab, Kingstanding), who has asked senior officers and the council’s deputy leader for assurances over the health effects.

He said: “Having been asked by a number of residents over previous months for reassurance regarding the health implications of a biomass boiler I have been looking into the matter and found that not only can I not reassure them, but that there are health implications that the council is, or at least should be, aware of.

“Furthermore, these are not the kind of adverse health effects that the council should be imposing on what is a densely populated and, particularly health wise, a disadvantaged area.”

He fears that the pollution effect could be multiplied as more and more of these boilers are installed.

This is backed by a council commissioned study into wood burning biomass in schools, the Westlakes Report, which suggested that the technology should be installed with caution.

It concluded that there would be an increase in pollutants, PM10 – invisible dust and soot particles – and nitrogen dioxide. These are common pollutants in urban areas and ones which Birmingham already struggles to control.

It measured increases of 65 per cent in nitrogen dioxide emissions and 50 per cent in PM10 levels at Fairfax School in Sutton Coldfield, where a boiler is up and running.

Councillor Hughes has also highlighted World Health Organisation reports which suggests that, depending on the age and existing medical conditions, there is no safe level for these pollutants.

But the council’s green champion, deputy leader Paul Tilsley (Lib Dem, Sheldon) believes that some of the evidence of pollutants is “questionable”.

He said: “There are new biomass developments taking place in a number of places including the NEC. There is a balance to be struck between biomass boilers which use natural waste and ensuring that the emissions are as clean as possible.

“We are looking to reduce the emissions as far as possible, as we have at the waste incinerator at Tyseley.”

A city council spokesman added that they are reducing any pollution. He said: “We would always encourage any developer or business within the city to explore sustainable methods of energy creation. If concerns were raised linked to any specific installation or technology, or should we identify issues through our regular monitoring, then of course we would take any action necessary to ensure problems are averted and the health of the public is not compromised.”

Supporters of the boilers outline their sustainable benefits, particularly over nonrenewable resources such as coal.

The boilers are cheaper to run and are reckoned to create no more carbon dioxide than a decaying tree – although this is disputed.

Birmingham Friends of the Earth support them as long as they are fed by locally grown crops and that large biomass power stations are not created which could swallow up forests faster than they can be renewed.

Spokesman Joe Peacock said: “Friends of the Earth supports the use of locally sourced woody biomass crops where this results in significant net reductions in carbon dioxide, while not impacting negatively on biodiversity, air, water and soil quality.

“There must be mandatory safeguards to ensure that only sustainable sourcing occurs or we will simply be swapping one environmental problem for another.

“The Combined Heat and Power plants using biomass in Birmingham are of a type that we support and there is potential for more CHP while still using sustainable supplies. What we oppose are large biomass ‘power stations’, especially those that use imported raw materials.”