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Wood smoke and indoor air
Some people use wood as their main source of heat, while others have wood stoves as a back-up. But wood smoke contains a number of pollutants that can be harmful to your health.
If you use a wood stove or fireplace in your home, there are steps you can take to reduce the health risks for you, your family, and neighbours.
Wood smoke can get into your home:
- when you open the stove to add or stoke the firewood
- through leaks and cracks in faulty or poorly-maintained stoves
- from other nearby homes with wood-burning stoves
The main pollutants in wood smoke that cause health concerns are:
- Particulate matter - This is the term for solid or liquid particles found in the air, which help create smog. They can be very small and can travel deep into your lungs, causing breathing and heart problems.
- Carbon monoxide (CO) - This is a colourless, odourless gas that is poisonous at high levels. It can make you feel sick and even kill you.
- Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) - These are a wide range of compounds that usually have no colour, taste or smell. Some cause direct health effects, while others contribute to smog.
- Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) - These compounds are a health concern because they can cause cancer.
In communities where wood heating is common, wood smoke can be responsible for as much as 25% of the airborne particulate matter, 8% of the VOCs, and 7% of the CO in the air.
Wood smoke can cause eye, nose, and throat irritations, as well as headaches, nausea, and dizziness. It can make asthma and other breathing (respiratory) problems worse.
Smog, to which wood smoke can be a significant contributor, has been linked to severe health risks, including increased hospital admissions and even premature death.
Wood smoke can affect anyone, but these groups are especially vulnerable:
- people with heart or lung problems
- children, because their respiratory systems are still developing and they tend to be more active and inhale more air
Help reduce the environmental and health impacts of wood smoke by following these tips:
- choose a low-emission stove
- install an "advance combustion" wood stove or fireplace insert to reduce toxic emissions
- look for appliances that have a sticker from the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). This sticker certifies that the appliance emits up to 95% fewer particulates and is up to 20% more fuel-efficient than regular models.
- maintain your stove
- make sure that your wood stove is well maintained and working properly
- have it inspected by a qualified professional at least once a year
- clean your chimney
- clean your chimney and flues regularly, follow the manufacturer's instructions
- use your dampers
- allow more air (ventilation) when starting a fire, and close the dampers when the wood is well charred. This technique produces more heat, so you use less wood.
- burn wisely
- avoid burning wood on days when air pollution levels are high.
The type of wood you burn and the way you store it also matters:
- use dry, seasoned wood
- cut, split, and stack wood in a dry area for at least six months before burning it
- let wood breathe
- stack wood loosely in your firebox to let the air freely circulate around it
- burn smaller pieces of wood
- small pieces are more efficient and a better source of heat
- wood that has been painted or chemically treated
- household garbage or cardboard (plastics, foam, and coloured ink on magazines, boxes, and wrappers produce harmful chemicals when burned)
- ocean driftwood, plywood, particle board, or any wood with glue on or in it (they all release toxic chemicals when burned)
- wet, rotted, diseased, or mouldy wood (this may expose your family to mould and spores that can harm their health)
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