According to the U.S. Fire Administration division of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), more than a third of the country uses wood-fired stoves, fireplaces, or similar appliances as the primary heat source in the home.
FEMA has produced a series of videos illustrating how to use and maintain fireplaces and wood stoves. Creosote is the leading cause of chimney fires, and it is important to use well-seasoned wood for building fires to avoid creosote build-up in the chimney. Hardwoods (deciduous trees) require about a year to season, while softwoods (pines and firs) can require a much longer time to dry out.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says that if properly used, fireplaces and wood stoves should burn smoke-free inside and outside the house. The EPA recommends that people use well-seasoned wood and keep the fire burning hot. Proper airflow should be maintained by regularly clearing out the ash.
Wood fires and indoor air pollution
- Household garbage, cardboard, plastic, foam, magazines, or paper with colored ink.
- Coated, painted, or pressure-treated wood.
- Driftwood, particleboard, plywood, or any wood that contains glue.
- Wet, rotted, diseased, or moldy wood.
Logs made from wax and sawdust should only be used in open-hearth fireplaces and never in a wood-burning stove or fireplace insert.
The EPA recommends that smoke and carbon monoxide detectors be installed throughout the home. Carbon monoxide is one of the chemicals produced by incomplete combustion.
Potential health impacts from exposure to indoor air pollution
Wood smoke contains fine particles that can potentially have serious adverse health effects on the heart and lungs when inhaled, according to an article by Judith T. Zeliko that appeared in the Journal of Toxicology & Environmental Health in 2002 and cited by the EPA report, “Woodsmoke and Health: A Survey of Research”.
Prolonged inhalation of wood smoke has been shown to contribute to chronic bronchitis, chronic interstitial lung disease, pulmonary arterial hypertension and other pulmonary health problems in adults. Children living in homes heated by wood-burning stoves were found to be especially vulnerable and were more likely to experience moderate and severe chronic respiratory symptoms, decreased pulmonary lung function in asthmatics, episodes of acute bronchitis, and wheezing and coughing. Although emissions from wood combustion are known to contain sulfur oxides, nitrogen oxides, and potentially carcinogenic compounds, such as, benzene, formaldehyde, and dioxins, it is not known the extent to which they pose a problem in homes with wood-burning appliances.
The EPA report concluded that residential wood smoke may be a significant source of exposure to fine particle indoor air pollution, but due to federal air quality regulations imposed in the United States, wood-burning stoves and fireplace inserts manufactured after 1992 burn significantly cleaner than older versions and should help reduce such hazards.
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