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To ease pollution and protect health consider alternatives to burning wood for heat


Last updated 1/28/2016 at Noon

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The bottom line is the California Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Air Resources Board would like to see less wood smoke sent into the atmosphere.

In a recent compilation of information, the agency said there are many things to consider when it comes to wood smoke: air pollution, the health effects of smoke, and more.

"Smoke from neighborhood stoves and fireplaces, a common source of both odor and reduced visibility, greatly contributes to the air pollution problems people complain about most," the California EPA stated. "When you include the health-related problems caused by inhaling smoke pollutants, health costs for individuals and the community can be significant."

The agency recommends that good neighbors eliminate or limit the amount of wood smoke they produce.

"Most wood heaters, such as woodstoves and fireplaces, release far more air pollution, indoors and out, than heaters using other fuels," it stated. "In winter, when people heat their homes the most, cold nights with little wind cause smoke and air pollutants to remain stagnate at ground level for long periods."

In families where individuals suffer from chronic or repeated respiratory problems, like asthma or emphysema, or have heart disease, wood should not be burned at all.

"Those who must burn wood should make sure the stove doesn't leak and that it is operated correctly," it stated. "Remember, if you can smell smoke, you are breathing smoke!"

Wood smoke produces carbon monoxide, an odorless, colorless gas, produced in large amounts by burning wood with insufficient air. Carbon monoxide reduces the blood’s ability to supply oxygen to body tissues, and can cause stress on one's heart and reduce their ability to exercise. Exposure to carbon monoxide can cause long-term health problems, dizziness, confusion, severe headache, unconsciousness and even death. Those most at risk from the poisoning are the unborn child, and people with anemia, heart, circulatory or lung disease.

It also produces oxides of nitrogen, which impairs the respiratory system and its ability to fight infection. It also combines with volatile organic compounds to make ozone and with water vapor to form acid rain or acid fog. Ozone injures the lungs and makes breathing difficult, especially in children and exercising adults.

Toxic pollutants also result from wood smoke. These volatile organic compounds lead to toxic and/or cancer-causing substances.

Interestingly enough, manufactured fireplace logs are not recommended for burning because they produce toxic fumes, including PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls).

"Researchers are now studying these and other smoke products to learn more about their effects on human health," the report stated.

As a result of the way that wood burns, it has been deemed that fireplaces and old wood stoves are "inefficient, expensive heaters," the EPA said.

Many have experienced the fact that if they sit within six feet of a fire roaring in their fireplace, the rest of the house seems to get colder. That's because outdoor air leaks in to replace the hot air going up the chimney.

"The key to burning clean and hot is to control the airflow," noted the EPA. "Most fireplaces waste wood because of unrestricted airflow. A lot of air helps the fire burn fast, but a load of wood will last only one or two hours. Some older fireplaces actually pollute more if you install glass doors on an old fireplace insert that is not a certified clean-burning model. Restricting the air supply causes the fire to smolder and smoke."

That is why it is recommended that homeowners who wish to continue using their fireplace install a new, certified clean-burning fireplace insert.

Certainly improvements to an older house's insulation can help improve heat efficiency as well. One should also be sure to caulk around all windows, doors, pipes, and any opening into the house. Weather-strip all door and window openings. Consider upgrading to double-paned glass windows or purchasing insulated curtains.

The EPA said gas fireplaces are a good choice when remodeling a home and replacing a wood fireplace.

Pellet stoves are also growing in popularity because they are viewed as the "most efficient and least polluting of the new stove designs." Some Fallbrook homeowners have been raving about their heating efficiency and easy-to-recapture cost.

Whatever the choice to reduce wood smoke, it is important to look at options that have the U.S. EPA label.

For safety purposes, if the fireplace is used, it is important to have it cleaned and inspected once a year, in order to remove built-up creosote.

"Cleaning is essential to ensuring its continued safe and clean-burning operation," the EPA said. "Creosote can fuel a chimney fire that can burn down a house."

To read the entire report, visit


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