Don’t Get Smoked-In this Holiday Season

December 9th, 2014
By: Mollie Simon

The holiday season is here and we know what that means: lots of festive lights, cookies, snow and family. This is also the season that fireplaces and stoves across the country will be used for heat and for ambiance. More than 27 million homes in the U.S. have a fireplace and nearly 9.3 million have wood-burning stoves.  As enjoyable as a glowing fire may seem, burning wood releases harmful air toxics directly into your home.

There is a warm feeling associated with a family sitting around the hearth in the cold winter months. While these wood fireplaces may be cozy, they are not healthy. Wood smoke contains dozens of nasty pollutants such as carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxide, hazardous metals, and known carcinogens such as formaldehyde, dioxin, benzene, and toluene. These are many of the same dangerous chemicals found in cigarette smoke. In fact, the Environmental Protection Agency estimates that breathing wood smoke particles during high pollution days is equivalent to smoking 4 to 16 cigarettes.

Some of our closest loved ones are the most susceptible to air pollution from fireplaces. Children and the elderly, as well as those predisposed to respiratory and cardiac disease, are more vulnerable to the medical complications of wood smoke. Potential health impacts include lung cancer, heart attacks, strokes, high blood pressure, and asthma.

One of the most dangerous pollutants produced from wood smoke pollution is particulate matter. PM levels in wood-heated homes are, on average, 26% higher than homes without wood-burning heat, according to air quality officials in the State of Washington. Fine particulate matter can lodge itself into one’s eyes and respiratory system causing major health problems. Dr. Joel Schwartz of the Harvard School of Public Health has said that, “Mammalian lungs don’t have defenses against small particles. Particulate pollution is the most important contaminant in our air… we know that when particle levels go up, people die.”.

From Flickr user Tom Wachtel

From Flickr user Tom Wachtel

For all of these reasons, it’s not good for your health to burn wood in your home. But if you do rely on using a fireplace or wood stove, there are some simple steps to take that will help make your home a little safer. If you use a chimney, get it inspected and cleaned at least once a year (more often for older units) by a professional. Never burn trash or treated wood, and make sure your wood is clean has been split and dried for at least six months. The cooler your fire, the more emissions it produces, so hard woods (like maple, ash, oak, and beech) emit less than soft woods (like pine and fir). It is also vitally important that you use a fireplace insert in your fireplace. EPA-certified models burn 70 percent more efficiently than an open fireplace.

But what is better than all these tips is to not burn wood at all. The traditions of a winter fireplace are not worth the serious threat that wood smoke pollution poses.

For more information and resources about making smart burning choices, you can visit the EPA Burn Wise program. If the smoke pollution is out of your control, you can take action by reporting it using our I See Smoke map application.


Clean Air Council Comments on Proposed Regulations for OWBs

On May 5, 2014, Clean Air Council submitted joint comments with Environmental Defense Fund and Hoosier Environmental Council on EPA’s rule proposing new source performance standards for residential wood heaters.  Current EPA standards for new wood heaters were issued in 1988 and have remained unchanged despite the Clean Air Act requirement that EPA review, and if appropriate, revise standards every 8 years.  More protective standards are more than 18 years overdue.  The current outdated standards do not cover hydronic heaters and furnaces (also known as outdoor wood-fired boilers and furnaces) as well as many other types of wood stoves.  Modern wood stoves, furnaces, and hydronic heaters are capable of achieving much lower emissions and higher efficiencies than current standards require, meaning new stoves can provide significant health and economic benefits to families across the nation.  The Council’s comments requested, generally, that EPA finalize more protective standards.  More specifically, the comments:

  • Examine the harmful impact of wood smoke on communities across the nation;
  • Highlight the tremendous health and economic benefits of the proposed rule;
  • Support the broad application of health-protective standards to furnaces, hydronic heaters and previously unregulated wood stoves;
  • Request that the proposed 2015 “Step 1” emission standards for wood stoves be made more protective by ensuring that certification extensions are not granted to high-polluting wood stoves;
  • Urge EPA to finalize the more protective proposed “Step 2” standards for new wood stoves, and require earlier compliance with those standards;
  • Urge EPA to finalize proposed Step 1 and Step 2 standards for new  hydronic heaters and forced-air furnaces, but require earlier compliance with Step 2 and include time-based emission standards for Step 2 units;
  • Support many of the improvements EPA has proposed in the test methods for these devises;
  • Recommend additional steps to ensure the integrity of compliance certification procedures;
  • Request EPA continue to require temporary hangtags for all new devices covered by this rule to help consumers make informed decisions about energy savings and public health; and
  • Respond to EPA’s request for comment on visible emission limitation

GreenSpace: Major U.S. polluters? Wood-burning stoves

Sandy Bauers, Inquirer GreenSpace Columnist

Posted: Sunday, January 5, 2014, 8:51 AM

A fire in the fireplace or woodstove can help you almost forget winter.

Just don’t expect Joseph Otis Minott to enjoy it with you. The executive director of the Clean Air Council, based in Philadelphia, doesn’t think of the words toasty and cozy when he thinks of fires.

He thinks of air pollution.

Like burning leaves – the ones that fall from trees in au- tumn and the ones we grow as tobacco – burning wood emits many harmful compounds, in- cluding the carcinogen benzene.

The emission that most concerns Minott is fine particulates – microscopic bits of matter that lodge deep in the lungs, often with other pollutants attached.

They’ve been linked to premature death in people with heart or lung disease, nonfatal heart attacks, decreased lung function, and a worsening of other respiratory symptoms, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

That fire “may be nostalgic and give you the warm-and- fuzzies,” Minott said, “but envi- ronmentally, there are issues.”

The emissions can be bad for you if you’re in the same room as the fire, and bad for your neighbors if they’re downwind of your chimney.

In general, woodstoves are more efficient than fireplaces – especially stoves or fireplace inserts with catalytic combustors that reduce emissions. But fireplaces are used more sporadically.

What concerns Minott even more is that wood is being promoted as a renewable resource, a greener option to oil or other fossil fuels. (Not to mention a cheaper one, especially for someone living on a wooded property.)

So the nation’s 29 million fireplaces and 12 million woodstoves are on the rise. Recent U.S. census figures showed that from 2000 to 2010, home heating with wood and wood pellets grew 34 percent, faster than any other heating fuel.

In all but the most efficient woodstoves, the pollution emitted for the heat generated is higher than for other kinds of

fuel, said Kevin Stewart, director of environmental health for the Mid-Atlantic region of the American Lung Association.

“We recognize that this is a growing source of air pollution,” he said.

In October, the Clean Air Council and the American Lung Association joined other nonprofits and health groups in suing the EPA to force it to update woodstove and fire- place emissions standards that date to 1988.

But Bret Watson, president of the stove manufacturer Jotul North America, contended “further regulation of modern clean-burning woodstoves will essentially do nothing to improve air-shed quality.” He said new standards wouldn’t address the five million to seven million dirty stoves in use now.

To that end, Jotul instituted a stove change-out program over the summer, offering a $300 credit to people who exchanged their old stoves for a new Jotul. The company also donated $10 a stove – a total of $14,500 – to the American Lung Association.

Watson said Jotul would likely repeat the program this year.

John Ackerly, president of the Alliance for Green Heat in Maryland, has a foot in both camps.

“We’re a pro-wood-heating group,” he said, “but we pretty much agree with the strict regulations that environmental groups want. We think that’s the best way for the industry to move forward, to be cleaner.”

Cleaner-burning stoves “will allow the sector to take off,” he said, “and not play second fid- dle to solar and geothermal.”

The alliance recently held a woodstove design challenge, demonstrating that stoves of the future will be automated, with sensors that regulate the air flow to get a more complete burn.

Most people close the air intake too soon, he said. “As long as a human being operates it, even the best stove can create a hell of a lot of smoke.”

GreenSpace: Tips for Better Burning

Whatever wood-burning device you have, here are tips for safer and less-polluting wood fires from the U.S.

Environmental Protection Agency’s Burn Wise program.

Burn only dry wood that has been seasoned at least six months.

Start fires with clean newspaper and dry kindling.

Burn hot fires.

Never burn garbage, plastic, or pressure-treated wood.

Have your chimney cleaned annually by a certified chimney sweep.

“GreenSpace,” about the environment and health, appears every other week, alternating with Art Carey’s “Well Being” column.

215-854-5147 @sbauers