What do you know about wood smoke?

Myths and Facts About Wood Smoke

Is the ambiance of a fireplace and the coziness of a wood stove worth serious health consequences? Take a moment to learn more about the downsides of wood smoke and how to reduce health impacts on your neighbors and your family.

Myth: Wood is a natural substance, so burning it couldn’t be bad.

Fact: Some 400,000 years ago, our ancestors learned how to make fire, and we’ve been burning wood ever since. But that doesn’t mean that inhaling wood smoke is good for our health. We all know that tobacco—a natural substance—is a carcinogen. Likewise arsenic—another naturally occurring substance—is poisonous.

Science tells us that the pollution generated by wood smoke harms human health in the both the short- and long-term. Wood smoke triggers asthma attacks and allergies, heart attacks and strokes. It leads to chronic lung disease and increases the risk of cancer.

Myth: Other air pollution is worse.

Fact: Many types of air pollution—from many sources—pollute the air we breathe. Examples include heavy metals emitted by industry, diesel exhaust from trucks and construction equipment, and smog-forming pollution from cars. Where you live determines your exposure. If your home is near a busy freeway, your biggest worry is tailpipes; if you live near industry, your biggest worry is smokestacks; if you live near wood stoves, your biggest worry is chimneys. In many cases pollutants from a variety of sources mix in our air, creating a toxic soup.

In several Oregon communities, wood smoke is the single largest source of hazardous particle pollution during the wintertime. Wood smoke doesn’t dissipate quickly, and on cold winter days (when people tend to burn wood) the problem is the worst because cold air creates what is called a temperature inversion—a lid on the lower atmosphere that traps pollution right at the level where we are breathing the air.

Many of us experience wood smoke pollution in the neighborhoods where we live, sometimes from the house right next door. Even if our home is well insulated and we keep our doors and windows closed, smoke in the neighborhood will still infiltrate our house. And if we burn wood in our own house, we drive up the indoor pollution even more.

Myth: A healthy adult isn’t harmed by wood smoke.

Fact: Certain people are especially vulnerable to the health impacts of wood smoke including those with existing health conditions, children, and the elderly. But if you are a healthy adult, don’t be fooled into thinking you’re immune. Science says particle pollution is unhealthy even at low levels. If you can smell wood smoke, you’re breathing pollution that is hazardous to your health.

Myth: We just need to switch to EPA-certified woodstoves.

Fact: EPA-certified wood stoves do produce less pollution than uncertified ones (with pellet stoves being the cleanest). But they must be operated according to manufacturer specifications using seasoned wood, which leaves a lot of room for human error. They also pollute more as they age. Even in tip-top condition, EPA-certified wood stoves are still more polluting than heating a home with natural gas or a heat pump.

So what’s the solution?

In 2016, Oregon Environmental Council participated in a wood smoke work group convened by the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality at the request of the Oregon Legislature. We support the work group’s recommendations, which include funding for local communities to implement wood smoke reduction programs (including education and outreach) and wood stove changeout programs. Since then, the legislature has allocated some resources for these programs, but more is needed.

OEC also believes the state should accelerate positive change through policy. For example, when you buy a home in Oregon you get information about lead and asbestos dangers; likewise, home buyers who purchase homes with wood stove should be given information about wood smoke pollution. And local governments across the state should adopt ordinances to ban the use of wood stoves and fireplaces on days with bad air quality. Several cities and counties in Oregon have these ordinances, which allow for exceptions, e.g., low-income households or households that rely solely on wood heat.

We appreciate that many Oregonians have a strong cultural attachment to burning wood and that wood stoves are a relatively cheap way to heat one’s home, especially when a family can get their wood for free from a nearby forest. So the solutions must be tailored to the community. For example, some communities do not have the option of heating with natural gas, so switching to an EPA-certified wood stove is their best option if they can’t afford to upgrade to a heat pump system. And low-income families (who are often the most vulnerable to the impacts of wood smoke) need the most help transitioning to a different heating source.

It will take some time before the strong cultural appeal of burning wood is a relic of the past. We hope that education and outreach, financial assistance, and protective policies will lead to the right choices for the health of every Oregonian.

Tips for burning wood

For tips on burning wood in a way that produces the least pollution, check out this video.

Fireplaces are for ambiance only, so please use your fireplace only on very special occasions. Consider changing to a gas fireplace, or (even better) decorate your hearth in a beautiful way.

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3 Replies to "What do you know about wood smoke?"

  • Paul Johnson
    November 22, 2016 (10:29 pm)

    Not enough. Everyone recognizes the problem. Need solutions that move to the goal of cleaner heat at really low cost, preferably something DIYer can do.

  • Matt
    January 12, 2017 (5:20 am)

    The new EPA certified wood stove is no solution and only further entrenches the problem, leaving the problem unsolved.

    It’s time to ban wood burning completely in all residential neighborhoods, and in closely settled rural neighborhoods too.

  • Frank P.
    January 12, 2017 (9:59 pm)

    Washington County has a wood stove buy-back program. Swap for a natural gas unit.