The Health Effects of Wood Smoke
Health Issues | Exposure
Issues | What Others are Doing | References
- Although wood smoke conjures up fond memories of sitting by a cozy
fire, it is important to know that the components of wood smoke and
cigarette smoke are quite similar, and that many components of both
are carcinogenic. Wood smoke contains fine particulate matter, carbon
monoxide, formaldehyde, sulfur dioxide and various irritant gases such
as nitrogen oxides that can scar the lungs. Wood smoke also contains
chemicals known or suspected to be carcinogens, such as polycyclic
aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and dioxin.
- Wood smoke interferes with normal lung development in infants and
children. It also increases children’s risk of lower respiratory
infections such as bronchitis and pneumonia.
- Wood smoke exposure can depress the immune system and damage the
layer of cells in the lungs that protect and cleanse the airways.
- According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), toxic air
pollutants are components of wood smoke. Wood smoke can cause coughs,
headaches, eye, and throat irritation in otherwise healthy people.
- For vulnerable populations, such as people with asthma, chronic
respiratory disease and those with cardiovascular disease, wood smoke
is particularly harmful— even short exposures can prove dangerous.
- The particles of wood smoke are extremely small and therefore are
not filtered out by the nose or the upper respiratory system. Instead,
these small particles end up deep in the lungs where they remain for
months, causing structural damage and chemical changes. Wood smoke’s
carcinogenic chemicals adhere to these tiny particles, which enter
deep into the lungs.
- Recent studies show that fine particles that go deep into the lungs
increase the risk of heart attacks and strokes. EPA warns that for
people with heart disease, short- term exposures have been linked to
heart attacks and arrhythmias. If you have heart disease, these tiny
particles may cause you to experience chest pain, palpitations, shortness
of breath, and fatigue.
- The particulate matter in wood smoke is so small that windows and
doors cannot keep it out—even the newer energy-efficient weather-tight
homes cannot keep out wood smoke.
- The EPA estimates that a single fireplace operating for an hour and
burning 10 pounds of wood will generate 4,300 times more PAHs than
30 cigarettes. PAHs are carcinogenic.
- A study by the University of Washington in Seattle showed that 50
to 70 percent of the outdoor levels of wood smoke were entering homes
that were not burning wood. EPA did a similar study in Boise, Idaho,
with similar results.
What Others Are Doing
- Iowa’s Supreme Court in 1998 declared that government bodies
do not have the right to allow burning that results in smoke crossing
- The State of Washington has laws to address neighbors’ wood
smoke. According to the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency, “generating
excessive smoke is not only unneighborly, it’s illegal. Under
state regulations, smoke from a person’s chimney cannot exceed
20 percent opacity for six consecutive minutes. Greater smoke densities
could result in fines from air pollution control officials. It is always
illegal to smoke out your neighbor. Everyone has a right to breathe
clean air. If smoke from your fire is affecting your neighbors, it
is considered a nuisance and subject to enforcement action.”
- Many states have restricted the use of wood burning in fireplaces
and wood-burning stoves on certain high pollution days. Colorado, Utah,
Albuquerque, New Mexico and many towns in California have set up pollution
numbers to call to find out if you can burn wood.
What Needs to Be Done
There is much we can do to protect the public’s health from wood
smoke exposures. Fireplace and wood stove chimneys should be regulated
so that they are high enough to protect neighbors from exposures. Individual
towns should pass zoning regulations to protect public health. State
legislatures and state departments of health should strengthen local
health departments with specific wood smoke language so that they can
deal on a case-by-case basis with situations in which people are made
sick by their neighbors’ smoke. As the State of Washington Clean
Air Agency has stated: “It is always illegal to smoke out your