Thursday, December 30, 2021

Where There’s Smoke …


An upswing in woodstove use might sound yawn-worthy, but recent findings about the dire health effects of wood smoke might mean the long-term future of wood as a heating fuel is in question.

As someone who grew up with wood heat, I assumed  it was hands-down one of the most sustainable, eco-positive fuels for home heating. Like many other widely shared conventions, it turns out the veracity of that assumption depends on a lot of things.

How many people burn wood in a given locale is an obvious factor. The number of homes using wood heat rose sharply in the years following the 1998 ice storm which left residents without power for weeks on end. Also no surprise, the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the use of wood heat.

My neighbor, who is a longtime chimney sweep, told me he’s noted an increase in the use of wood heat in the past eighteen months. The much-publicized exodus of urban dwellers to the country has meant additional work for him, and he said “I don’t need any more business right now.”

This frenzy of wood burning is ill-timed, however. As reported in The Guardian on 1 January 2021, health-care professionals now say wood smoke “…may be damaging every organ in the body, with effects including heart and lung disease, diabetes, dementia, reduced intelligence and increased depression. Children and the unborn may suffer the most.”

The referenced article notes that “Dr. Nick Hopkinson, medical director at Asthma UK and British Lung Foundation, said both indoor and outdoor pollution caused by wood burning stoves caused serious health issues, from breathing problems to an increased risk of heart attacks, strokes and lung cancer.” The story also states that “…wood-burners triple the level of harmful particulates inside the home as well as creating dangerous levels of pollution in the surrounding neighbourhood.”

The fact is that these fine particulates, smoke elements less than 2.5 microns in diameter that remain suspended in air almost indefinitely, are the real concern. They are tiny enough to lodge in the alveoli, the deep lung tissue, and accumulate there. This can reduce lung function permanently in adults, and arrest the full development of children’s lungs. Other harmful pollutants in smoke include volatile aromatic compounds (VOCs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), both of which are known carcinogens.

Again, having grown up around wood smoke and being mostly not dead yet, I could brush off such reports as hyperbole. But I had lived in a remote area with only one neighbor within a mile. Population density matters a lot.

In terms of places where wood-smoke pollution can be significant due to population, let’s look at Montréal. The public health department estimated that on the island of Montréal, wood smoke causes nearly 1,000 premature deaths, over 6,000 childhood bronchitis cases, and at least 40,000 asthma attacks annually. In addition, a city-wide wood-smoke study released in 2000 found that in winter, levels of fine particulates and other dangerous air pollutants were higher in Montréal’s residential neighborhoods than in its urban core. Considering that children are at higher risk of smoke-induced health complications, the grim warnings sound less like exaggerations.

Going back to my friend the chimney sweep, he has a few thoughts on the future of wood burning. Given his profession, he’s not against it, yet he contends “There are greener ways to heat your home than with wood.” First of all, he urges everyone to get an energy audit of their home. In addition, he’s a big proponent of thermal pumps, which he feels are an underutilized yet readily available technology. He also brought up the issue of forest management, saying that imprudent harvesting is neither sustainable nor “green.”

stew cooking

Today’s catalytic-combustion woodstoves emit little to no smoke when run properly. They also deliver more heat per wood volume burned, so they will save you big on firewood costs. One catch is that burning firewood of less than 20% moisture content is a requisite for the modern breed of stoves to work right. Typically that means at least twelve months of wood being cut, split, stacked and sheltered from rain in a well-ventilated space. I asked my neighbor if he thought the recently arrived ex-urbanites had a decent grasp on woodstove operation. He laughed. “Most haven’t got a clue.”

This is where education comes in. He told me that although cleaning soot and creosote pays the bills, his real passion is educating folks about the importance of burning wood right. Yes, fire is an amazing tool that has been with us since the Stone Age, and back when there were six people on the planet, all that mattered was keeping it lit. Today we have a ton more neighbors, and we just found out that we’ve grossly underestimated the health effects of wood smoke.

It’s imperative to burn clean, burn less, and explore ways to conserve energy and make our homes more efficient. It will keep children healthier, save firefighters from risking their lives at house fires caused by improper wood burning, and save tax dollars. This doesn’t mean entirely giving up on wood-burners – they’re here to stay. As this veteran chimney cleaner told me, “It gives people a sense of empowerment. Plus there’s nothing quite like the warmth from a wood fire.” Amen to that, sir.

Paul Hetzler has been an ISA-Certified Arborist since 1996 and is a former Cornell Extension Educator.

Almanack file photos/fire photo by Richard Monroe


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Paul Hetzler has been an ISA Certified Arborist since 1996. His work has appeared in the medical journal The Lancet, as well as Highlights for Children Magazine.You can read more of his work at or by picking up a copy of his book Shady Characters: Plant Vampires, Caterpillar Soup, Leprechaun Trees and Other Hilarities of the Natural World

30 Responses


    “This is where education comes in.”

    Paul, a link to wood burning educational sources would be helpful. Always enjoy reading your writings.

  2. Randy Fredlund says:

    He laughed. “Most haven’t got a clue.”

    Shouldn’t the sweep say, “Most haven’t got a clue about the flue.”?

  3. Chuck M. says:

    Do they also take a similar stance against burning incense in the home? I know that’s not the gist of the article, and I fully support the sciences, but I also often detect a ‘no, no, no’ attitude which is not very good PR.
    They never mention pellet stoves as a safer alternative (we use ours extensively) due to their more complete burning of wood?

    I’m also a fan and paid subscriber to The Guardian, but fwiw this article is very UK-oriented citing UK stove usage statistics.

  4. Jim Schaefer says:

    One last bastion of renewable but with some health risk. We need to talk to the Neanderthals who might get sued… The more significant problems with fuel and fire are in other parts of the world where cooking requires cow, elephant and other ruminant dung. South Asia Indian and Pacific Island folks are vulnerable. Much more significant than the wood fire elite in our rural areas with their second homes …,
    You’ve never lived if you have not enjoyed morning coffee amidst the sweet smell of locals cooking over cow dung smog in Delhi or Hyderabad or most any large venue….

  5. plow boy says:

    I thought I read saw a news clip of a bill proposed in NYS legislature to ban wood heat. The greenies are coming for your wood stoves in there EV’s.
    The greens should invest their time in saving (not wasting) the energy that is wasted by not having any storage for all the green energy they want to fund and generate that is a noble goal but not low hanging fruit by any measure.

  6. JT says:

    This is a good article, I agree with 100%. I do heat with wood using an outdoor wood boiler for the past 20 years. Mine is older technology model with a simple damper system. Damper open lets air into the firebox to ignite the fire and damper closed the fire goes out. This regulates the water temperature between 175 and 185 degrees F. I plan on replacing the unit within the next couple of years with one of the newer wood gasification boilers. My hope is that the EPA does not ban people heating with wood. If they do, they should also ban campfires at the state parks too. I can see it in the towns and villages where houses are in close proximity to each other and neighbors down wind have to breathe high concentrations of smoke. Putting it all into perspective, consider the forest fires out west with the thousands of acres being burned, us folks heating with wood do not come close to producing the quantities of PM2.5, VOC’s and PAH’s that those fires emit.
    I have a friend who lives in the Massena Electric Company district. His electric rates are so low that he heats his house with electricity. Unfortunately, I have National Grid with high electric rates so cannot afford to do the same, otherwise I would.

  7. Beau Bushor says:

    We measure the particle amount in our outside air using a PurpleAir unit. It’s amazing how much worst the air quality gets when the wood burners are fired up.
    There is a free PurpleAir air quality map you can read at their website.
    Burning wood is an air quality problem. Medical problems in rural NY proof this. Unfortunately there is no easy answers to its replacement.

    • Mike says:

      Funny. PurpleAir Units are very inaccurate are detecting high levels of toxins in large cities where woodstoves aren’t being used. All fossil fuels that are not renewable.

      “Medical problems in rural NY proof this.”
      Correlation does not equal causation.

  8. Mike says:

    Woodstoves are only used seasonally while gas grills and cookers are used year round and emit far more toxins. Exchange propane tanks need to be banned before woodstoves.

    • Dana says:

      Are you serious? Who runs their grills/cookers 24/7 in summer?? Use a little logic for chrissakes…

      • Mike says:

        Really? Are you serious? Who runs woodstoves 24/7 in summer? How many local stores near you have propane exchanges that are constantly being refilled all year round? All of them! 24/7 all YEAR! Woodstoves dont even come close to the deadly toxins that are coming from them. VERY DANGEROUS.

        • Dana says:

          Utter nonsense! How many hours/year do you run a propane grill? How many hours/year do you run a wood stove? But then, I guess YOU don’t burn propane devices because they are so toxic! You have no argument.

          • Mike says:

            Deana you’re missing the point. Propane is not a renewable resource, wood is. The infrastructure and logistics needed for the distribution and processing is staggering. It’s a byproduct of petroleum. Trucks, barges, ships, trains, tankers, and more are used for the distribution and manufacturing creating more dangerous toxins and C02. Wood doesnt even come close to producing as much. Eliminating exchange tanks would be an excellent start to saving the planet compared to banning of a few woodstoves. Banning propane tanks in NY is being talked about and in the very early stages of being law. You can resist if you want but it’s time to get into the 21st century. The world is cooking.

  9. Habitatman says:

    We have a lot of forested acreage (now under conservation easement) so a really polluting wood boiler was our heat source for about 20. years. I never imagined that our back lot would ultimately replace the boiler via 100s of feet of buried tubing. A ground sourced geothermal heat pump really does the trick (and the a/c from the system is excellent). The electric bill is much lower than the oil bills we got for a few years prior to the conversion. The lower bills will ultimately pay for the heat pump installation/operation. Of course there is an excellent environmental payoff as well and that’s the most important thing to us.

    • mrdale says:

      Two thumbs up!!

    • Mike says:

      With the price tag and property needed for geothermal its certainly for the privileged. Very nice, good luck with it.

      • John says:

        I’ve had good luck with it, for 14 years, thank you. Even with the cost of drilling a 300-foot well (because we didn’t have enough room to bury piping) the operating savings paid for the system in less than 10 years.

        • Mike says:

          Thats amazing! 14 years ago, prices where a little different for sure. Try having a 300 foot well drilled today you’re looking at 8 to 10 grand. Plus with the geothermal heat pump, ducting, piping, electrical, permits, etc., I would think 40,000 or 50,000 today. It would never pay for itself.

          • Dana says:

            People pay that much for kitchens!

            No one can say something will “never” pay for itself unless you know the future costs of different types of energy. Wood may be cheap to burn for now, but for how long? Any diminishing resource is likely to become more expensive. Brick buildings with steel/aluminum framing are becoming more popular with high lumber prices. And more of the building can be recycled.

  10. Dan says:

    On the same subject:

    Good luck convincing native Adirondackers to give up wood heat. Not to mention all the rustic rental homes, cabins and campgrounds where so much centers around the fireplace and campfire.

  11. Mike says:

    This is meant to punish red counties. It has nothing to with saving lives or the environment. If Mas is so concerned about New Yorks health and lungs, then why not ban cigarettes, e cigarettes, and marijuana. Oh wait…. NY is encouraging pot smoking!

  12. Zephyr says:

    Don’t worry so much about wood smoke. Global warming will mean a lot less heating will be needed in coming years! Plus, I imagine forests will grow a lot faster in the warmer climate. Personally, I love the warmth, smell, and ambiance of a nice fireplace or woodstove, but prefer them as occasional winter enhancers or backups for when the power goes out. I would not want to use wood as my main heat source. Despite what the proponents say, I can instantly tell if they are burning wood–if you can smell it there is a measure of indoor air pollution. I have a neighbor in the city who has a state-of-the art modern woodstove that fills the neighborhood with smoke during the occasional temperature inversion we experience. It is quite amazing how that one stove can create a dense fog of smoke over a large area.

  13. Charlie Stehlin says:

    “The number of homes using wood heat rose sharply in the years following the 1998 ice storm…”

    When I’m on the road traveling through the rural parts of New York, or in Vermont, I always take notice of the wood piles which stand-out on private lots, and no matter what time of the year it is, spring, summer, fall….those piles are always being worked on in preparation for the winter to come. Survival instinct! The piles, or stacks of wood, in yards that I see have found me concluding that burning wood is very popular, and seemingly on the rise, which parallels with the statement above.

  14. Charlie Stehlin says:

    Dan says: “…so much centers around the fireplace and campfire.”

    Yes! Some of my most memorable moments are those where a wood fire was burning, whether it was at a camp at night way back in the Moose River Wilderness when teen was still attached to my age, or at the firepit up on the Maybie Hill in Gilboa at my brothers place during my visits there. Or at Durant Lake on a cold night, with the wind blowing, stars shining bright above; or sitting in a winter house warm and cozy around the wood-burning stove no matter where it was, the wind howling outside sneaking through cracks bringing music to my ears…..

    I have sat around many fires, or wood-burning stoves, over my years, and it has always been these fires which added magic to long-ago scenes when recalling them, the crackling sounds, the embers trailing off up out of the pit into the darkness of night. And when I go through old literature and come upon campfire tales, or wood-burning stove themes, the child most always comes out in me. There is most certainly some ‘thing’ about fireplace and campfire tales!

  15. Charlie Stehlin says:

    Mike says: “This is meant to punish red counties.”

    Why does it always have to be political? You do have some valid points though, about banning cigarettes, etc. And while we’re at it, how about cars that are left running while parked. To think of how many people do this, how much carbon emissions are needlessly spewing into the air, filling our lungs. Warming the planet! This is actually against the law in New York State (it should be against the law everywhere), yet you will not find one law-enforcement officer who enforces it! Or a politician who brings it up! And to think ‘the long-term future of wood as a heating fuel is in question.’ They’ll never get away with it!

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