Residential Wood Burning | American Lung Association

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Residential Wood Burning

Burning wood produces emissions that are widely recognized as harmful to human health. Many of these harmful emissions can occur both indoors and outdoors and many devices operate around the clock. People with lung disease face special risks, but so do children, older adults, people with cardiovascular disease and diabetics.

Wood-Burning Emissions Threaten Lung Health

Emissions from wood smoke, discussed below, can cause coughing, wheezing, asthma attacks, heart attacks, lung cancer, and premature death, among other health effects.1 Many of these pollutants can worsen air quality indoors and outdoors.

  • Particle pollution. In some places, wood-burning is the major source of particle pollution.
  • Carbon monoxide. Wood smoke add to the outdoor levels of carbon monoxide, as well as increasing indoor concentrations
  • Nitrogen oxides. Nitrogen oxides harm health indoors and outdoors, and helps create particle pollution.
  • Volatile organic compounds. These gases include harmful pollutants and contribute to creating ozone pollution.
  • Hazardous air pollutants. Wood smoke emissions include carcinogens and hazardous air pollutants, including benzene and formaldehyde. 
  • Climate change pollution. Wood smoke adds carbon dioxide and methane to the air, two pollutants that contribute significantly to climate change.

Protecting Yourself from Wood-Burning Emissions

Wood stoves, hydronic heaters and other appliances are often used 24-hours a day, which can substantially worsen air quality outdoors.  If wood-burning is affecting air quality in your neighborhood:

  • Stay indoors: Children, older adults and people with lung disease, cardiovascular disease or diabetes should remain indoors and avoid breathing smoke, ashes and other pollution in the area.
  • Don't count on a dust mask Ordinary dust masks, designed to filter out large particles, will not help. They still allow the more dangerous smaller particles to pass through. Special, more expensive dust masks with true HEPA filters will filter out the damaging fine particles, but are difficult for people with lung disease to use. Consult with your doctor before using a mask, especially if you have a lung disease.
  • Take precautions for kids: Extra precaution should be taken for children, who are more susceptible to smoke.  Their lungs are still developing and they breathe in more air (and consequently more pollution) per pound of body mass than adults.
  • Roll up your car windows: When driving your car in smoky areas, keep your windows and vents closed. Air conditioning should only be operated in the "recirculate" setting.
  • Put air conditioners on recirculate: Stay inside as much as possible, with doors, windows and fireplace dampers shut and preferably with clean air circulating through air conditioners and air cleaners. Use air conditioners on the recirculation setting to keep from pulling outside air into the room.
  • Don't exercise outdoors especially if you smell smoke or notice eye or throat irritation.

Reduce Your Pollution

Avoid burning wood, corn, switch grass or other products to heat the home or water.  Especially during high pollution days, burning can add pollution to the outdoor air.  If you must burn a fuel to heat your home or water, natural gas stoves and heaters have lower particle pollution emissions than wood-burning devices. However, they need to be fully vented to the outdoors as they also produced some of the same pollutants indoors and out, including carbon monoxide.

Cleaner Devices Are Here

If you decide to burn wood, then look for the cleanest burning devices. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency adopted new standards for wood-burning devices in 2015, but manufacturers will have until 2020 to phase them in and make their equipment cleaner and more energy efficient.  Some Some devices currently meet the 2020 standards and have hangtags showing this certification.

  • Woodstoves, pellet stoves, and hydronic heaters: Retailers should only sell stoves that meet the 2015 or 2020 standards. Look for a permanent label that indicates they are certified to meet the 2015 standards. Even cleaner and more fuel efficient stoves will be phased in through 2020. Some already meet those 2020 standards, according to EPA.
  • Wood-fired forced air furnaces. Cleaner warm air furnaces will be phased in beginning in 2016/2017 and fully in place for all devices manufactured in 2020. 2

Burn Cleaner Fuel

If you cannot switch to natural gas and still need to burn fuel in your device, then make sure your fuel burns as cleanly as possible. Pellets and dry wood can burn cleaner and more efficiently than other woods.  For tips on burning wood, see tips at the EPA's Burn Wise information.

Implement a Wood Stove Change-out Program

EPA estimates that 65 percent of the woodstoves in use in the U.S. are older devices that produce significant pollution and do not burn efficiently.3 Some communities have put in place woodstove change out programs to help communities, especially low income families, benefit from cleaner air and more efficient heating.  EPA has guidance to help communities put such program in place.

The Lung Association is working with local communities to implement woodstove change-out programs to help residents upgrade to cleaner-burning, more energy-efficient heating appliances and technologies. Learn more about Lung Association woodstove change-out programs.


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