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Wood smoke and your health

Even though people have burned wood for millennia, we now know that wood smoke can impact the health of your family and others around you. It contains wood tars, gases, and soot, as well as chemicals like carbon monoxide, dioxins, volatile organic compounds (VOCs), and fine particles. Many of these are the same toxic substances found in tobacco smoke, and it is believed that wood smoke has many of the same health consequences as tobacco smoke.

People who frequently breathe wood smoke are at risk for serious adverse health effects. One source of health problems is the fine particles in wood smoke.

Short-term exposure (hours or days) to fine particles in the air can aggravate lung disease, trigger asthma attacks and acute bronchitis, and may also increase susceptibility to respiratory infections. In people with heart disease, short-term exposures have been linked to heart attacks and arrhythmias. Over time, breathing fine particles in the air increases the chances of developing chronic obstructive lung disease, chronic bronchitis, cardiovascular disease, or lung cancer.

Scientists have studied health patterns among people who burn wood in their homes, people who have been exposed to smoke from wildfires, and people who live in developing countries where wood is burned for heat and cooking. There is clear evidence from this research and animal studies that exposure to wood smoke can irritate the eyes, nose, and throat and worsen asthma and other respiratory symptoms. Exposure to wood smoke may also be harmful to respiratory immune responses, leaving people more susceptible to infectious lung disease. In high concentrations, wood smoke can permanently damage lung tissue.

Exposure to wood smoke

Higher concentrations of smoke increase the likelihood of adverse health effects. But even at low levels, the substances in wood smoke can be harmful, so when burning wood, it is not only your family and those near the fire who may be exposed, but also neighbors in the surrounding area, some of whom may have underlying health problems. Wood smoke particles are so tiny that they remain suspended for long periods of time and readily penetrate into buildings with incoming cold air. Young children, the elderly, and people with asthma, lung, or heart disease are especially vulnerable to wood smoke in the air.

Stagnant conditions and winter temperature inversions result in wood smoke hanging close to the ground, where it can enter neighbors’ houses through tiny cracks, open windows and vents. Wood smoke often settles into low-lying areas, and can become trapped and build up to unusually high concentrations.  

If you choose to burn wood, take the time to understand best practices for wood burning. Ready to help your community make a change toward less wood burning? Learn how to reduce wood smoke in your neighborhood.

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Last modified on November 05, 2013 13:24