Wood Stoves: Just How Many Carcinogens Do They Emit?

When it comes to heating with a wood stove, you need to protect yourself and the planet from carcinogenic woodsmoke.
Cozy, comfy—and deadly? (Photo: Chris Clinton/Getty Images)
Dec 20, 2012· 2 MIN READ
Amy DuFault is a sustainable fashion writer, consultant as well as Digital Content & Communications Director at the Brooklyn Fashion+Design Accelerator

Ah, the smell of wood stoves during the cold, winter months. The Norman Rockwellian smoke trailing slowly from brick chimneys, the cancer-causing particulates that mutate our DNA…wait, what?

As homeowners start to crank up their wood stoves this holiday season, what many might consider to be a symbol of energy self-sufficiency could actually be one more plume in global warming's cap.

"I think many people who heat with wood are motivated in part by not having to 'pay the man,' the home heating equivalent of 'living off the grid,' " Cutler Cleveland, founding Editor-in-Chief at Encyclopedia of Earth and Professor of Earth and Environment at Boston University, tells TakePart.

"I think many people view wood fuel use as 'greener' because it is renewable. In some respects it is, but combustion releases pollutants and forest ecosystems harvested for wood can be mismanaged as well," says Cleveland.

According to Environment and Human Health, Inc., while we may all yearn for the smell and feel of a warm fire in our fireplaces and stoves, the components of wood smoke and cigarette smoke are closely related in that they are equally carcinogenic. As in, you’re breathing in secondhand cigarette smoke every time you inhale that cozy smell.

MORE: As Climate Science Gets More Dire, Climate Policy Limps Along

Wood smoke actually contains fine particulate matter, carbon monoxide, formaldehyde, sulfur dioxide and various irritant gases such as nitrogen oxides that can scar the lungs, cause cancer, damage DNA and activate genes in hazardous ways comparable to cigarette smoke and car exhaust.

The U.S. EPA tells TakePart that many municipalities have incorporated local nuisance ordinances to address excessive smoke from wood-burning appliances and for burning trash. The agency also initiated a wood stove changeout campaign in 2005 with projects in Lincoln County, Montana and in Southwest Pennsylvania, and since then in several other locations throughout the U.S.

In a changeout, consumers receive rebates to replace older appliances, incentives that amount from 10 to 15 percent of the purchase price of a new EPA-approved appliance.

The EPA’s site Burn Wise reports that approximately 10 million wood stoves are currently in use in the United States, and 70 to 80 percent of them are older, inefficient, conventional stoves that pollute.

The EPA’s primary interest in the changeout program is to help areas reduce wood-smoke emissions where there are known air-quality issues due to residential wood-burning appliances.

“Since 2005, more than 50 state, tribal and local government agencies have implemented wood-burning appliance ‘changeout’ programs replacing or retrofitting more than 24,000 wood stoves and fireplaces. EPA estimates that these efforts have resulted in the removal of 63 tons of hazardous air pollutants and 370 tons of particulate matter from the air annually; providing approximately $135 to $329 million in estimated annual health benefits,” the EPA tells TakePart.

JP Webb founded The Iron House on Cape Cod 37 years ago. Over the years he has seen many stove designs come and go. Webb has even created his own stove models from scratch.

How does he feel about all the new changes?

“We should be happy that the EPA is helping to clean this up and that dealers are making these new stoves,” says Webb.

“They might cost more money at first, but their efficiency in terms of burning ends up saving the homeowner money and gives the environment some clean air. Which is what we want to do, right?”

Does this story make you think twice about firing up your wood stove this holiday season? Tell us in the COMMENTS.