Wood Burning: Dangerous to your Health. Find Out Healthier Solutions.

Wood Burning Health Issues & Solutions

When it is freezing out, what is the first thing you want to do?  I bet you want to sit in front of a roaring wood fire and warm up. In fact, many US households depend on wood to heat their homes.   Currently, there are 12 million wood stove and 243,000 hydronic heater (outdoor wood boilers) households.  Add in the 29 million fireplaces in the US to the mix and you have a bonfire of a pollution and health problem.

A recent Australian study showed a 11% increase of asthmatic symptoms in connection with the use of wood stoves.   So how can you still burn wood and reduce the health concerns?  Read on.

Wood Burning and Pollution:

wood burning emissions

According to the EPA,

 ”Smoke resulting from improperly burned wood contains many chemical substances that are considered harmful such as hazardous air pollutants (HAPs), fine particle pollution (ash), and volatile organic compounds (VOC).

  • HAPs are an important component of wood smoke. A group of HAPs known as polycyclic organic matter includes benzo(a)pyrene, which may cause cancer.
  • Particle pollution in smoke can damage lung tissue and lead to serious respiratory problems when breathed in high concentrations. In low concentrations, particle pollution in wood smoke can harm the health of children, the elderly, and those with existing respiratory diseases. EPA has created an extensive Web site related to particle pollution.”

The EPA further states that 20 old non-EPA certified wood stove emit more than 1 ton of particles into the air during the cold season. To make matters worse, 70% of wood stoves are inefficient and cause pollution.

In addition, wood stoves can create carbon monoxide poisoning.  On average, 150 people die every year from carbon monoxide poisoning from combustible appliances which include wood stoves.

Asthma connection and burning wood

Children and the elderly are more susceptible to wood smoke.  Children’s lungs are still developing and they breathe more air per pound of body weight. Inhaling wood smoke can cause asthma   The elderly, on the other hand, may have prior health conditions in which smoke inhalation can lead to chronic pulmonary and heart disease.

Maine is a perfect example of how wood smoke can affect its citizens.  Half of Maine’s households heat their homes with wood.

According to the Maine Emergency Management Agency, one in three Maine households has either a household member that has asthma, chronic lung disease, or chronic heart disease.  In fact, Maine has the highest childhood and adult asthma rates in the country.

Note, wood heating is not the only factor since 1 in 7 households allow someone to smoke in their homes.

How to have your wood fire and your health too.

Listed below are recommendations of healthier, safer less polluting options:

1.   Upgrade your wood stove:   The Wood Stove Changeout program is a voluntary local or regional program which offers rebates, discounts, or no interest loans for people to replace their old wood stoves.  See here for the list of programs in both the US and Canada.  Note, this is not a comprehensive list.  Check with your county official to find out if your area has a program.

2.  EPA certified Wood Stove Program. If your community doesn’t have a Changeout Program, consider replacing your stove with an EPA certified stove.   The new standards cut emissions by 70% , are more efficient, and will save you money since the newer stoves only needs a third of the wood that old stoves required.

Look for the EPA certification label when shopping for a new stove.

3.  Hydronic Heater Program:  Replace your  hydronic wood or biomass boilers (wood pellets, corn, sawdust, etc.) for a Phase 2 EPA qualified product.  Under the Phase 2 program, models are 90% cleaner than unqualified models.

4.  Wood Pellet Stoves:  Consider replacing your old stove with a wood pellet stove that uses compressed wood waste.  These type of stoves are considered the most efficient stoves with ratings exceeding 80%.

5.  Fireplace inserts :  Fireplace inserts reduce pollution:  Most fireplaces are either mason constructed or low mass prefabricated fireplaces.  These fireplaces lose about 90% of the heat of the fire along with much of the heated air in the room.  Consider purchasing an EPA qualified fireplace insert which reduces 70% of the pollution caused by ordinary fireplaces.  See here for a list of fireplace inserts.

6.  Maintain your heaters and fireplaces :  The US Fire Administration estimates on average there are 50,100 heating fires annually which accounts for 150 deaths, 575 injuries and $326 million dollars in property damage.  Hire a professional to annually inspect and maintain your wood heater and chimney.   Clean chimneys reduce the risk of chimney fires.

In addition, your chimney should be checked for cracks.   Smoke can escape through the cracks in the chimney and enter your home.

7.  Build a fire the right way.

  • Always use seasoned wood that is at least 6 months old.  Pine and Douglas Fir dries in about six months but other hardwoods take longer to dry.
  • Wood should have a moisture content of less than 20%.  (The video entitled “Wet Wood is a Waste” on the EPA’s Burn Wise site shows you how to test your wood.)  You can buy a moisture meter here.
  • Use the right tree species for your fires.    See the chart below.  Certain hardwoods are more dense and thus, have more energy per cord.

List of Hardwoods to use for a fire.

  •  Store wood off the ground and with the top of the stack covered.  See here for a modular shed plan.
  •  Split the wood properly.  See this video on how to properly store and split your wood.

Along with all the pointers above, always start fires with newspaper or dry kindling and burn smaller fires.  After the fire is extinguished, store the ashes outside in a metal container.

Most importantly, don’t add certain materials like pizza boxes, colored newspaper, and painted wood to your fire.  See here for a list of materials not suitable for a fire.

Join the conversation:

  • Do you use a wood burning stove or outdoor boiler for heat?
  • Have you upgraded any of your wood burning stove or installed a fireplace insert?
  • Any tips for starting a non-polluting fire in your fireplace?

Photo from the EPA regarding  wood burning emissions


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Comments

    • 2

      says

      Karen, I felt like debbie downer writing this post but indoor air quality is huge for me. So many kids have asthma and if we could stop something that contributes to it, I am all over it. Anna

    • 4

      says

      Joyce, I hear you on the EPA but you do have to give them credit for pushing more efficient and less polluting wood products. What do you suggestion do you have about wood burning stoves and fireplaces. There are serious toxic chemicals being released in wood smoke. Anna

  1. 7

    BL says

    This is horrible advice the only healthy solution to burning is DON’T, there is far to much evidence against burning to continue to preach burn smart

      • 9

        mary power giacoletti says

        To include suggestions about “better” wood-burning in an article
        informing of the harmfulness of wood smoke is to give the impression
        that one or the other is true. People who want to burn will only “interpret”
        the go-ahead and use “dry wood” rationale.

        • 10

          Bill Lewin says

          Mary that is so right and why anyone or group championing clean air should never include ( if you must burn or burn smart). That is a green light for those that burn.

  2. 11

    says

    First you say how bad wood smoke is, and then you tell people it is ok to burn wood. Conflicting, illogical arguments like this guarantee that the problem won’t get any better. All that EPA certification does is give false legitimacy to rubbish products. New stoves don’t burn significantly cleaner than old ones. They are still 1000 times too dirty. Your article is flawed because you do not understand this or the reality of the scientific facts about wood smoke. You have believed the fraudulent marketing of the manufacturers. They are lying to us. You have had been had. As I said – it’s a very dumb article.

    • 12

      says

      People use wood as ways to heat their houses. How are you going to get them to stop? You have to get them to start to under there is a problem before you can get them to stop. It is like changing their eating habits. People just don’t do that overnight and there are some that will never change. Anna

      • 13

        says

        You get them to stop by passing legislation prohibiting it. The justification for prohibition is simple. Wood smoke is extremely cardiotoxic and carcinogenic and it reduces air quality and quality of life for everybody. Then you give neighbors the right to sue, because neighbors paying all of the externalized costs definitely should have a say in what they have to breathe. And finally, for the recalcitrant you criminalize the behavior.

        Science is on prohibtion’s side. How come you are not?
        Matthew´s last blog post ..The sickness of polluting the suburbs continues

      • 14

        BL says

        Only in a lab do these stoves perform as labeled they can never do so in the real world. So the way to educate people is not Burn smart articles but actual facts on the amount of toxins burning forces upon their neighbors . People who read Burn Smart messages assume they are doing the right thing when in fact they are poisoning entire neighborhoods. People need to know just how polluting these so called clean burning EPA approved stoves really are.

      • 15

        AIRIN says

        How do we get people to stop burning wood?!–By banning it. Clean Air Laws exist–they need to be upheld and enforced. Everyone has the legal right to breathe reasonably clean air in their home and on their property without being unwillingly exposed to harmful, toxic wood smoke. I am a former wood burner myself–who heated completely with wood at one time–and I unfortunately had no idea how poisonous and toxic wood smoke is. We are way beyond the voluntary educational phase in terms of what the Public Health Code now knows about the harmful effects of residential wood burning. If that same wait and see attitude had been applied to seat belts and children’s car seats we’d have a serious blood bath on our hands. I live in NH which is one of the least populated states in the country–and yet we have one of the highest asthma rates in the US–which is not surprising considering New Englanders burn more wood than any other region and is also the region with the overall highest asthma rate in the US. Billions of dollars are spent annually on treatment for asthma alone. These monies could be used to offset heating expenses for the truly needy. What price do we place on our health and that of our loved ones–allowing our homes and neighborhoods to be polluted through residential wood burning? NO ONE would tolerate the water they drink being poisoned–the air we breathe is no less important.

  3. 16

    Mcat says

    @Joyce,people that pollute need to recognize that they are just as culpable as big companies when they are poisoning the air of their neighbors.Wood smoke has an immediate health effect on the nearest neighbors.Using the argument that big companies do it so go after them first is lame.When you point a finger at someone else you are pointing three at yourself.People need to be respectful as to what they are doing and what they can do to lessen the impact of pollution in their own neighborhood.
    The familiar old adage we use on children,”if everyone jumped off a bridge would you too ?” applies tenfold in these neighborhood situations.

  4. 17

    Mcat says

    I must add,if people receive accurate information most will stop burning.Most of my friends no longer burn because of info I have given them,and several of my neighbors have also stopped.articles such as this are very misleading,especially to the diehard burner they just see the “safer way to burn” which is very inaccurate.

  5. 18

    Cathy says

    Burning wood is highly polluting and should no longer be allowed in any residential area. There is no way to burn wood in a neighbourhood without impacting the health and well-being of others. Everyone deserves the right to breathe clean air.

    The old advice to “burn clean” etc., is inaccurate and misleading. The fact is that even new wood stoves emit far too much black carbon (now recognized as a major factor in climate change) and particulate matter (now classified as a Group 1 carcinogen) to be suitable in any urban area. And when two or more wood burning appliances are used in a neighbourhood, the pollution is multiplied. There is really no such thing as “clean” wood burning.

    “Physicians’ Group: Wood Smoke Worse Than Cigarettes” http://www.publicnewsservice.o.....s/a34937-1