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. Some of these gases are carcinogens, 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.
Protect 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 in 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
Avoid burning wood, corn, switchgrass or other products to heat the home or water. Especially during high pollution days, burning can add pollution to the outdoor air. Look for alternatives to heat your home. More and more homes are shifting to alternatives such as solar panels and electric or geothermal heat pumps. Find information on these heat sources for your home at www.energy.gov.
Choose a cleaner device
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.
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 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 are being phased in now and will be fully in place for all devices manufactured in 2020. 2
Choose a better fuel
If you cannot switch to solar, heat pumps or 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 some 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.
Naeher LP, Brauer M, Lipsett M, Zelikoff JT, Simpson CD, Koenig JQ, Smith KR. 2007. Wood smoke Health Effects: A Review. Inhalation Toxicology. 19:67-106.
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Controlling Air Pollution from Residential Wood Heaters. February 2015.
U.S. EPA. Strategies for Reducing Residential Wood Smoke, March 2013, EPA-456/B-13-001
Page last updated: March 16, 2020