EPA Air Standards for Wood Burners: Steps in the Right Direction But Not Enough

February 27th, 2015
By: Mollie Simon

Earlier this month, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) updated their standards on outdoor wood-fired burners for the first time in 27 years. These updates are well overdue and will make new wood burners on the market cleaner and safer, while also allowing consumers to save energy and cut costs. Although these new regulations will make significant improvements, they do not go far enough for communities and neighborhoods already plagued with wood smoke pollution.

The science clearly shows that wood smoke pollution is dangerous to public health. Wood heaters and furnaces account for 13% of nationwide soot pollution. Particulate matter poisons our lungs and bodies. Biomass such as wood, when burned, gives off large amounts of carbon, nitrogen, and sulfur oxides, in addition to volatile organic compounds.  All this pollution causes health complications like asthma, heart disease and other respiratory illnesses.

take up smoking

A PSA from San Francisco Bay Areas’s Spare the Air campaign

With these new standards, emissions from wood burners will be cut by about two thirds. This will improve air quality and provide between $3.4 and $7.6 billion dollars in health benefits. In fact, every dollar spent bringing cleaner heaters to market will be accompanied with between $74 and $165 dollars in health benefits. That means less asthma attacks, heart attacks, emergency rooms visits, and days missed of school and work.


Residential wood burning

So these rules are a step in the right direction. But the EPA could also be doing much more to protect people from wood smoke pollution. The rules released last week make improvements to wood burners on the market but do not address the wood burners already in use across the country. As many as 12% of homes across the Unites States burn wood as their primary heat source and all those thousands of wood burners will continue to pollute at unhealthy and dangerous levels. These rules also do not cover fireplaces, fire pits and chimineas, leaving other major sources of soot and particulate matter polluting at high levels.

These rules will help alleviate some wood smoke pollution. But the challenge is far from over. These rules are set to be phased in over a 5 year period, but those suffering from wood smoke pollution know that a 5 year phase out is too long to wait for new cleaner wood stoves. The EPA also needs to require yearly stove maintenance to ensure that stoves are maintaining their promised levels of emissions controls. Above all this, the EPA needs to require that all residents operating old units switch to newer, lower emission models so that the older models are brought out of operation. We need more action and leadership from the EPA on wood burning issues in order to fully address this problem in our communities

speak upIf you believe that EPA should take some of these common sense actions to further address wood smoke concerns, leave a comment for them here.

Better Burning Practices

All wood burning produces particulate matter and hazardous chemicals.  However, if you are going to burn wood, then it is important  to make sure you are following the best practices. Proper techniques can minimize emissions and reduce threats to public health.  Always make sure to:

  • Use dry, seasoned wood.
  • Burn hardwoods like oak, in place of soft ones like pine.
  • Never burn trash, plastic or pressure-treated woods.
  • Avoid using an accelerator like gasoline to start a fire.
  • Don’t leave a dying fire to smolder. It produces more air pollution and presents a safety hazard.
  • Check your local air quality forecast before you burn.

If you burn indoors:

  • Keep air vents clear of ashes.
  • Regularly clean your chimney or flue.
  • Upgrade to an EPA-certified wood stove or fireplace insert.  These burn cleaner, more efficiently, and emit less particle matter.

Read the full article from Pittsburgh Today by clicking here.

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

Allegheny County Offers Incentive to Replace Wood-Burning Heaters

Allegheny County Health Department (ACHD) is set to offer incentives for home owners who replace out-dated wood burning stoves (WBSs) and outdoor wood-fired boilers (OWBs).  New stoves and boilers must meet EPA emissions requirements, but many existing stoves are do not meet these standards.  ACHD’s program aims to help home owners replace these older, less efficient, and more polluting units with new EPA Certified WBSs and OWBs, or cleaner electric or gas powered units.  Allegheny residents can register before May 9th, 2014 to receive one of five $500 gift cards for an OWB or two-hundred $200 gift cards for a wood stove.  Existing stoves must be turned into ACHD on May 17th to receive one of the gift cards, which are redeemable at Home Depot, Lowe’s, Kmart, Dick’s Sporting Goods, GetGo and Giant Eagle.

For more information, check out the full article in the Pittsburg Post-Gazette.

Health Impacts of Wood Smoke

Many people don’t think of wood smoke as a major health or environmental concern, but the truth is quite the opposite.  Wood smoke contains many harmful carcinogens in addition to sulfur, mercury, nitrogen-oxides, and carbon-dioxide.  Soot and ash are additional problems as they can work their way deep into lung tissue.  All totaled, one wood stove or boiler can have thousands of times the emissions of one using natural gas – contributing greatly to health and environmental degradation.

One of the principal problems with wood-burning is that the impacts are often local.  Wood smoke is released close to the ground from low chimneys or smoke stacks, where the soot and toxins mix with the ambient air.  This are is then breathed in by local residents, causing new medical conditions and aggravating existing ones.

Washington State has put together an informational booklet about wood-smoke, available here, that goes into greater detail about its impacts on health and the environment, best practices, and what you can do in your community.  Also check out our resource page for more information on biomass and the impacts of wood-smoke.

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