Are Wood-Burning Stoves Safe for Your Health?

Wood-burning stoves can keep you warm and cozy but can be hazardous to your health if used improperly.

Over the short term, the fumes from a wood-burning stove can cause respiratory symptoms like coughing and shortness of breath. Recurrent exposure can cause the worsening of symptoms in people with asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), heart failure, and others.

According to the American Lung Association, wood-burning stoves produce toxins that are damaging to your lungs and can increase the risk of lung disease, heart disease, and even cancer.

This article explains the health risks associated with wood-burning stoves and how to use them safely if they are intended for heat or simply to create a cozy atmosphere.

Homemade pizza oven
Stefan Cristian Cioata / Getty Images

What Happens When Wood Burns

The smoke from a wood-burning stove releases a variety of pollutants, mainly in the form of toxic gases, particle pollutants, or creosote.

Creosote is a gummy, foul-smelling residue that sticks to the inside of your chimney. It is produced when wood gases are not completely burned. The buildup can cause a chimney fire.

The smoke from burning wood also contains cancer-causing substances (carcinogens) that are similar to those found in tobacco smoke. These include benzene and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs).

The quality of the stove also contributes to its safety. Old or poorly-installed wood-burning stoves pose a higher risk of smoke emission, creosote, air pollution, and house fires.

Do You Smell Smoke?

You should never smell smoke from a wood-burning stove. If you do, it means that the stove and/or chimney are not operating safely and need servicing.

Health Risks of Wood-Burning Stoves

According to a 2015 study in Environmental Research, exposure to particle pollution increases the risk of emergency room visits, hospital admissions, and even death from heart and lung disease.

In the end, anyone with a chronic illness is more susceptible to the harmful effects of wood smoke. The stoves may look pretty but exude fumes that can cause long-lasting or even permanent harm, especially to children with developing lungs and smaller body sizes.

Wood-burning stove fumes can cause the worsening of many diseases, including:

Carcinogens in wood smoke may also contribute to the onset of cancers like lung cancer and even breast cancer.

Short-Term Health Effects

You may feel the effects of a wood-burning stove while it is burning or afterward when near the toxic remnants of a fire. Symptoms may include shortness of breath, coughing, worsening allergies, and acute bronchitis.

If you have a lung disease like asthma or COPD, wood-burning stoves can cause symptoms to flare up, leading to:

If you have heart disease, fumes from a wood-burning stove can increase the risk of:

  • Chest pain
  • Fatigue
  • Shortness of breath
  • High blood pressure
  • Irregular heartbeats
  • Heart palpations

Long-Term Health Effects

Particulate pollution can be breathed deep into the lungs. Once trapped, it can damage the cells and contribute to the worsening of not only lung diseases but heart diseases as well.

Wood Smoke and Lung Infection

Excessive or prolonged exposure to wood smoke also increases the risk of respiratory infections such as pneumonia or bronchiolitis.

Long-term exposure has been linked to the development of:

  • Chronic bronchitis
  • Lung cancer
  • Breast cancer
  • Heart disease
  • Dementia
  • Premature death

Health and Safety Tips

EPA-certified wood-burning stoves burn more efficiently than older models with less smoke leakage and creosote build-up.

If you plan to use a wood-burning stove, have it installed by a certified installer or have existing units inspected before usage. Thereafter, keep to the recommended maintenance schedule.

When using a wood-burning stove:

  • Keep the flue open to allow plenty of oxygen into the unit.
  • Start your fire with clean newspaper or dry kindling. Never start a fire with gasoline, kerosene, charcoal starter, or a propane torch.
  • Only burn clean, dry wood that has been properly seasoned. Don't burn particleboard, treated wood, stained wood, painted wood, or wet wood.
  • Burn hot, bright fires. Avoid fires that smolder.
  • In milder weather, burn smaller fires.
  • Let the fire burn down to coals, then rake them into a mound toward the air inlet and wood stove door. Don't spread the coals out flat.
  • Keep the stove doors closed at all times unless you're tending the fire.
  • Remove ashes on a regular basis.

You also need to ensure that your home has ample ventilation and all the necessary safety features to protect yourself and your family.

Among the considerations:

  • Use an air filtration device to improve the air quality of your home.
  • Install and maintain smoke alarms.
  • Install and maintain a carbon monoxide detector.
  • Always keep a fire extinguisher handy and in proper, working condition.
  • Keep anything flammable away from the stove, including drapes, furniture, books, and newspapers.

EPA Warning

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) advises limiting exposure to wood-burning stoves and their fumes and always adhering to safety precautions whenever you use them.

15 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Deborah Leader, RN
 Deborah Leader RN, PHN, is a registered nurse and medical writer who focuses on COPD.