It's Your Health
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Wood smoke, like any by-product of combustion (burning), contains a number of pollutants that can be harmful to your health. If you use a wood stove or fireplace in your home, there are steps you can take to minimize the risk of health effects for your family and neighbours.
Some people use wood as a primary source of heat, and others have wood stoves as a back-up in case of emergencies, like power failures. Wood heating is popular in some areas because it is a renewable fuel.
However, the smoke from wood stoves and fireplaces pollutes the air outdoors and contributes to smog. Outdoor air pollution has been associated with a wide range of adverse health effects and the scientific literature to date indicates that most sources, including wood smoke, appear to play a role in these effects. Smoke from outside can also seep into buildings, including nearby homes, and affect indoor air quality. The air inside your home can also be affected when you open the stove to add wood, or if your wood stove leaks.
Older wood stoves, or wood stoves that are not Canadian Standards Association (CSA) or US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) approved should be replaced as they can increase your risk of health effects. Always use hard (avoid soft), dry, clean wood that has been properly seasoned. It should be cut, split and stacked in a covered area for about six months (including the summer months) before burning.
The main pollutants in wood smoke that cause health concerns are:
In communities where wood heating is common, wood smoke can be responsible for as much as 25% of the airborne particulate matter, 15% of the volatile organic compounds and 10% of the carbon monoxide in the atmosphere. Wood smoke also contains small quantities of other toxic compounds, including nitrogen oxides and chlorinated dioxins. These can contribute to environmental hazards, like smog and acid rain.
Exposure to the pollutants in wood smoke can cause eye, nose and throat irritation, headaches, nausea and dizziness. Wood smoke can also make asthma worse, and has been associated with an increase in respiratory problems. Smog, to which wood smoke can be a significant contributor, has been linked to severe health risks, including increased hospital admissions and even premature death.
While occasional exposure to wood smoke may cause minor and reversible problems for those with significant respiratory disease, regular and continued exposure to this and other sources of smog may cause some additional and more significant health risks. These health risks are greater for people with existing heart and lung problems. Children are also at greater risk because their respiratory systems are still developing, and because they inhale more air due to their higher rates of activity.
If you are concerned about the health effects of wood smoke, or have someone in your family who may be sensitive to its effects, the best thing you can do is switch to a different heat source, like natural gas or oil.
If you do heat with wood, you can minimize your risk by installing an "advanced combustion" wood stove or fireplace insert that reduces toxic emissions. When buying one of these appliances, look for a sticker from the Canadian Standards Association (CSA) or the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
Also, you can reduce the amount of wood you burn and lessen the impact of wood smoke by following these steps:
Health Canada assesses scientific evidence about the health effects of wood smoke and makes this information available to Canadians. Health Canada is also working with other government departments to determine the best ways to minimize risks associated with wood smoke.
For more information on the health effects of wood smoke and air quality visit the following websites:
For safety information about food, health and consumer products visit the Safe Consumers website
For additional articles on health and safety issues, go to the It's Your Health web section
You can also call toll free at 1-866-225-0709 or TTY at 1-800-267-1245*
Updated: February 2011
Original: October 2001
ęHer Majesty the Queen in Right of Canada, represented by the Minister of Health, 2008