Are Wood-Burning Stoves Safe for Your Health?

Wood-burning stove
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Wood-burning stoves may keep you warm and cozy, but they can also be hazardous to your health. You might notice effects such as coughing and shortness of breath within a few days (and sometimes even within a few minutes) of exposure to the fumes. Recurrent exposure can exacerbate many illnesses such as emphysema and heart failure.

According to the American Lung Association, wood-burning stoves produce harmful toxins that can damage your lungs and increase the risk of cancer, heart disease, and premature death. The fumes from wood-burning stoves are especially dangerous if you have a respiratory condition, such as asthma.

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.

What Happens When Wood Burns

The smoke from a wood-burning stove releases pollutants, mainly in the form of toxic gases and particle pollution. It may not seem it, but this is toxic waste. It sticks to your chimney as creosote and is released into the air.

Creosote is a gummy, foul-smelling combustible chemical residue that is produced when wood gases are not completely burned. Too much creosote can create a chimney fire. Old or poorly installed wood-burning stoves pose a higher risk of smoke emission, an increase in air pollution, and greater risk of house fires. 

You should never smell smoke from your wood stove. If you do, this means that it is not operating safely and should be serviced.

Health Risks

Exposure to particle pollution increases your risk of emergency room visits, hospital admissions, and even death from heart and lung disease.

Anyone with a chronic illness is more susceptible to the harmful effects of a wood-burning stove. Children, with their developing lungs and small body size, can have severe and lasting effects from exposure to the fumes emitted by a wood-burning stove. Older adults are prone to feeling sick during or after exposure and developing chronic health complications.

You could also be at especially high risk of developing health problems from wood-burning stove fumes if you:

Short-Term Health Effects

You may notice immediate effects when you are exposed to a wood-burning stove while it is burning, or even if you are near the vicinity of remaining toxic residue.

Symptoms can include:

If you already have lung disease, smoke from wood-burning stoves can aggravate your symptoms. You may experience any of the following within a few days of exposure to fumes from a wood-burning stove:

  • Flare-up of a chronic cough
  • Increased mucus production
  • Increased wheezing
  • Worsened dyspnea (shortness of breath)

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

  • Chest pain, palpitations, shortness of breath, and/or fatigue
  • Heart attack
  • Arrhythmias (irregular heart rate)

Long-Term Health Effects

Particulate matter can be breathed deep into the lungs. Once trapped there, it can damage the cells, making breathing more difficult and worsening heart and lung conditions.

Long-term effects of smoke from wood-burning stoves have been linked to:

Safety Tips

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

If you plan to use a wood-burning stove, know that safety begins with installation. It's important to have yours installed by a certified professional installer, and to have already-existing stoves inspected by such an expert before using them. Follow the recommended schedule for proper maintenance thereafter.

Using your wood-burning stove with caution, then, becomes essential. There are important procedures you need to follow:

  • Keep your flue open to allow plenty of oxygen in while using your stove.
  • Start your fire with clean newspaper or dry kindling.
  • Only burn clean, dry wood that has been properly seasoned.
  • Don't burn particleboard, treated wood, stained wood, painted wood, or wet wood.
  • Never start a fire in your wood stove with gasoline, kerosene, charcoal starter, or a propane torch.
  • Burn hot, bright fires.
  • In milder weather, burn smaller fires.
  • Avoid fires that smolder.
  • 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 doors of your wood stove closed at all times, unless you're tending to the fire.
  • Remove ashes from your stove on a regular basis.

The EPA offers more helpful guidance on wood-burning stoves and their use on their website.

You also need to make sure that your home or the building where you are using a wood-burning stove is properly equipped to handle the effects.

Maintaining safe surroundings includes:

  • Installing and maintaining smoke alarms.
  • Installing and maintaining a carbon monoxide detector.
  • Always keeping a fire extinguisher handy and in proper, working condition.
  • Keeping anything flammable away from your wood-burning stove, including drapes, furniture, books, and newspapers.
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