Sunday, 26 May 2024

Take precautions against wood smoke dangers

LAKE COUNTY The comforting, homey aroma of wood smoke belies the dangers inherent in the common fireplace.

This is the time of year when, for many homes, it's common to have a fire in the woodstove.

However, it's important to be aware of wood smoke's possible health impacts, because the smoke can result in substantial air pollution, and improperly maintained wood stoves and heaters can result in health problems for those who use them.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Web site reports that wood smoke includes carbon monoxide, organic compounds including air toxins, and fine particles, which the EPS said are formed when unburnt gases cool as they go up the chimney. Those fine particles can be seen as white smoke, the EPA reported.

While the EPA says that wood smoke pollution affects everyone, risk depends on a person's exposure to the smoke, along with age and health.

Certain populations are at special risk, according to the EPA, including infants and young children; those with cardiac or respiratory conditions (such as asthma); the frail elderly; and anyone with diabetes-related vascular conditions.

Wood smoke can affect people both inside and outside of their homes, the EPA reported.

"Wood smoke is not good for you," said Bob Reynolds, director of the Lake County Air Quality Management District (LCAQMD).

Reynolds said the greatest health risks are for people exposed to wood smoke in their homes due to improperly maintained stoves or for those who burn wood treated with chemicals such as creosote.

The smoke is a particular health concern, he said, because dangerous toxins enter the lungs and then go directly to the bloodstream and lymph nodes.

The LCAQMD Web site says, “Generally wood stoves and fireplaces are not clean from an air emissions perspective; even when the burning devices are EPA approved they are likely to create localized degradation and air quality impact when used in dense residential areas.”

The EPA report on wood smoke reported that poorly installed or leaking wood heaters can cause excessive levels of carbon monoxide in the home. Carbon monoxide, EPA explained, deprives the body of oxygen, impairing thinking and reflexes.

Symptoms can range from headaches and fatigue at low exposure levels, to flu-like symptoms at moderate levels, to carbon monoxide poisoning and death in high-exposure cases.

Particulate matter generated by burning can cause short-term health concerns, the EPA reported, such as throat and eye irritation, runny nose or bronchitis. In addition, it makes existing heart and lung conditions bronchitis, asthma and emphysema worse, according to the EPA.

Air toxics can cause eye irrigation and headaches, or have much worse affects, such as permanent damage to the body's systems respiratory, nervous, reproductive, immune and developmental, the EPA reported.

Even worse, the EPA said that certain air toxics generated by burning can cause cancer.

What to do? First, both the EPA and Reynolds urge making sure your stove is cleaned and in proper working order.

A major caveat from Reynolds: Avoid burning treated wood.

Reynolds said his department has dealt with only about 10 complaints in the last year from people who say their neighbors' wood burning is causing them discomfort. Most of these complaints, he added, have arisen within residential developments.

When confronting such a problem, he urges people with complaints to first approach the woodstove owner.

Reynolds said he's found that, generally, people try to be cooperative when problems are brought to their attention, and are willing to make modifications, including raising chimney heights.

The EPA suggests making sure that stoves are properly assembled, that flues are the right size and the stoves are properly located and configured.

LCAQMD suggests operating wood stoves and heaters according to manufacturers' recommendations, and having the chimney swept annually. The agency offers guidelines for what woods to burn (they suggest seasoned hardwood rather than softwood), and urges consideration of alternatives fuels, including wood pellets and propane.

For more information on health concerns and stove safety, visit the EPA Web site, or; or the Lake County Air Quality Management District Web site,

E-mail Elizabeth Larson at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..


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