Wood Burning Stoves Must Be Regulated Now

New research adds to the bad news about wood smoke. From lung disease to anxiety, burning wood creates pervasive pollution that affects entire neighborhoods.

Humans have a fascination with wood burning, for obvious reasons. We’ve relied on it for millennia, to keep us warm, scare away predators, cook our food and provide a social centerpiece. Unfortunately, burning wood is a tradition that’s extremely hazardous to our health.

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A study just released in the UK has added to the long list of negative impacts. Researchers found a link between breathing the fine particulate smoke from wood stoves and mental health.

“As air pollution increased, the researchers found, so did cases of depression and anxiety. Exposure-response curves were non-linear, however, with steeper slopes at lower levels and plateauing trends at higher exposure, suggesting that long-term exposure to low levels of pollution were just just as likely to lead to diagnoses as exposure to higher levels.”

There’s a huge disconnect between perception and reality about wood burning in the U.S. For example, because the EPA now mandates stoves with catalytic converters, many users believe the combustion process is “safe.” That’s an exaggeration.

Ticking Time Bomb

Wood stoves produce a dangerous, toxin-laced smoke that gets deep into human lungs. Studies of newer EPA-compliant stoves have found, for example, that they do reduce the levels of toxins by about 30 percent on the community level. Typically, however, they are compared with old wood stoves, not cleaner means of heating. 

Ultimately, new wood stoves are “less bad,” not safe. Over time, the smoke from wood burning can cause asthma, anxiety, cancer and lead to early death, regardless of how efficiently it’s introduced to the atmosphere.

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Wood stove smoke is extremely dirty, even when produced by EPA certified units. Image: 

citizensforcleanerair.org


Wood stove safety now is urgent, because volatile gas and electricity prices have caused a huge  surge in “biofuel” burning in many parts of the world, including the Northeast U.S. That’s a trend that’s expected to continue. If it does, it will create disastrous health consequences, as millions endure the second-hand impacts of first-hand polluters.

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As energy costs spike, interest in wood burning is on the rise globally and in the United States, increasing pollution risks. Image credit: forgreenheat

 

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Image credit: Data Bridge Market Research

 

Problems with Pellet Stoves

Another “go to” for defenders of wood stoves is the assertion that pellet stoves offer a much more benign type of wood combustion. This again is an overstatement. Pellets generally do burn cleaner than logs, but they’re still far “dirtier” burning than renewable, and of course, renewably powered mini split heat pumps, releasing an array of dangerous toxins.

This is especially true in the smoky startup and shutdown phases of combustion, which incidentally are not included in most analyses that measure pellet burner particulates.

Another problem with pellet stoves is that they encourage a pellet fuel industry. If not carefully regulated, this can result in unsustainable cutting of forests to provide raw material for the pellet mills. And because global demand for pellets is so voracious, wooded carbon sinks such as Northern Maine could quickly lose their important forests as pellets are shipped off to China and the UK.

Dangerous Stack Effect

One little recognized issue with wood burners is that they can initiate a “stack effect.”

As the fire burns in the stove on a downstairs level, it pulls in fresh air, depressurizing the space. If there’s no easy way for that fresh air to be replaced, it can backdraft from other chimneys or even pull in smoky air through poorly sealed walls and windows.

Often homeowners will open a window near the woodstove because the room gets too hot. This can create a perfect storm scenario, where invisible particulates from the chimney re-enter the home as makeup air.

Uncontrolled, often invisible wood smoke is one of the reasons that in 2016, the EPA banned traditional outdoor wood stove boilers. This ruling was rolled back somewhat in 2022 when the right-leaning U.S. Supreme Court asserted that the EPA overstepped its authority with regard to the Clean Air Act. The implications are not yet clear.

Whatever the ultimate outcome of the political tussle over wood stove regulations, critics are moving forward with lawsuits, legislation and legitimate social and health concerns. Much as many people may enjoy the low cost and nostalgic comforts of wood heating, it’s not just our own families we’re exposing to life-threatening smoke. It’s our entire street, neighborhood or City, depending on the terrain, wind patterns, elevation of our home and so on.

In our view, allowing wood stove use to continue without restrictions raises the same moral questions that second hand smoke once did. There’s a reason smoking cigarettes is banned in most public places and restaurants. 

An elderly person or child shouldn’t have to partake of cigarette smoke when waiting for a train or sitting in a restaurant. A retired couple shouldn’t have to breathe in the dangerous wood smoke from their neighbor’s cozy home.

Is Banning Wood Stoves Fair to Those of Modest Means?

Banning or regulating wood stoves raises legitimate concerns about social equity. Many people don’t have the financial means to heat their homes all winter using fossil fuels or even electricity.

That being said, all residents suffer from the continued use of wood stoves in neighborhoods. They need to be strictly limited. This means that local, state and federal rebates and incentives must come into play, at the same time wood stoves are regulated

Many rebates and incentives for cleaner forms of heat already exist, or are in the works. But even with federal tax credits and rebates on heat pumps and solar, many people will need more direct assistance. In the UK, the government has been offering a generous subsidy of up to £5,000 towards an air source heat pump, or £6,000 towards a ground source heat pump.

In the United States, credits and rebates for alternative methods of “clean” heating do exist, but they’re much more conservative. For example, the latest Federal income tax credits, available now through 2032, provide up to $3,200 annually toward heat pumps or other energy-efficient home upgrades, but they’ll only cover 30 percent of the cost of each type of improvement. Some states offer additional rebates, but the homeowner still bears the brunt of the conversion costs.

A Fair Use Recommendation

Rather than an outright ban on wood stoves, an “emergency use only” ordinance would make sense. During a power outage or natural gas shortage, for example, homeowners should be allowed to freely use their wood burners to keep the house livable. The city could issue a “burn permit” alert, delivered by text and email to residents, alerting them to periods when burning is acceptable.

Wildfire Smoke Is Wood Smoke Too

For people living in states where wood burning for heating is unnecessary or declining, wood smoke may still loom as a a major health risk. The source: runaway wildfires.

Wildfires not only contain the toxins common in wood, as they encroach on manmade structures and objects they can pick up a wide array of dangerous particulates. In fact, a study published in Nature found wildfire smoke to be ten times as dangerous to human health as other pollution sources.

This realtime map shows which areas in the U.S. allows you to check for wildfire smoke in any region.

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