Are Wood-Burning Stoves Safe for Your Health?

Wood-burning stove
lucentius/iStockphoto

Wood-burning stoves may keep you warm and cozy in the shivering cold of winter. But, they may also be hazardous to your health—especially if you have certain health conditions that place you among those in a high risk group.

Overview

Wood smoke is waste, toxic waste at that. It sticks to your chimney as creosote or is released into the air as air pollution. Creosote is a gummy, foul-smelling combustible residue that occurs when wood gases are not completely burned.

Too much creosote can create a chimney fire. 

Old or poorly installed wood-burning stoves result in higher maintenance costs, greater risk of smoke emission, an increase in air pollution, and greater risk of house fires. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) warns people to limit exposure, especially if you are among those at high risk. 

Remember, too, that you should never smell smoke from your wood stove. If you do, this means that it is not operating efficiently or safely and should be serviced.

EPA-Certified Wood-Burning Stoves

Cleaner heating devices like EPA-certified wood burning stoves burn more efficiently than older models. This means that much less creosote builds up in your chimney. EPA stoves also release 60 to 80 percent less smoke up your chimney—a good selling point to those who are environmentally conscious and concerned about air pollution.

The EPA reminds us that safety begins with installation, so it's important to have your wood-burning stove installed by a certified professional installer.

To learn more about using your wood-burning stove safely and more efficiently, visit Burn Wise.

Who's at Risk?

The EPA says that while healthy people are generally not at risk from smoke-related health problems, people with chronic illnesses are much more susceptible. Those at high risk include:

  • Older adults, possibly because they are more likely to have chronic health conditions.
  • Children, because their lungs are still developing and they breathe more air (and air pollution) in per pound of body weight than adults.

Long-Term Health Effects

The smoke from a wood-burning stove releases pollutants, mainly in the form of toxic gases and particle pollution. Numerous studies have linked particle levels to an increase in emergency room visits, hospital admissions, and even death from heart and lung disease.

Particulate matter can be breathed deep into the lungs. Once trapped there, it can damage the cells, making breathing more difficult and worsening heart and lung conditions. Long-term effects of smoke from wood-burning stoves has been linked to:

Short-Term Health Effects

Not only does smoke from wood-burning stoves create long-term health concerns, but it is also associated with the following short-term health effects:

In people who already have lung disease, smoke from wood-burning stoves:

People with heart disease should take special precaution when using wood-burning stoves as the smoke it produces:

  • Increases the risk of heart attack
  • Increases the risk of arrhythmias
  • May cause chest pain, palpitations, shortness of breath, and/or fatigue

Safety

Before you go tossing your wood-burning stove out the window, the EPA tells us that there are some ways that we can protect ourselves from any and all associated health issues. The following lists some important tips so you can keep those fires burning all winter long, but limit your exposure to wood-burning stove smoke:

  • Ensure that your stove is installed properly and maintained regularly.
  • Keep your flue open to allow plenty of oxygen in while using your stove.
  • Start your fire with clean newspaper or dry kindling.
  • Don't burn anything other than clean, dry wood that has been properly seasoned.
  • Avoid burning particle board, treated wood, stained wood, and painted or wet wood.
  • Burn hot, bright fires. Avoid fires that smolder.
  • Let the fire burn down to coals, then rake them into a mound towards the air inlet and wood stove door. Don't spread the coals out flat.
  • Reload the wood stove adding three pieces at a time, placing the wood on, and behind, the mound of hot coals you've created. Refrain from adding only one piece at a time.
  • In milder weather, burn smaller fires.
  • Keep the doors of your wood stove closed at all times unless you are loading it with wood.
  • Remove ashes from your stove on a regular basis.

The following safety tips should also be considered when using a wood burning stove:

  • Install and maintain a smoke alarm.
  • Install and maintain a carbon monoxide detector.
  • Always keep a fire extinguisher handy and in proper, working condition.
  • Keep anything flammable away from your wood burning stove, including drapes, furniture, books, and newspapers.
  • Never start a fire in your wood stove with gasoline, kerosene, charcoal starter, or a propane torch.

Sources:

Environmental Protection Agency. Burn Wise

Environmental Protection Agency. Health Effects of Wood Smoke.

Continue Reading