Are Wood-Burning Stoves Safe for Your Health?

Wood-burning stove
Stefan Cristian Cioata / Getty Images

In This Article

Wood-burning stoves may keep you warm and cozy in the shivering cold of winter, but they are also 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.

Safety Hazards

Wood smoke is toxic waste. It sticks to your chimney as creosote is released into the air as pollution. 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

The smoke from a wood-burning stove releases pollutants, mainly in the form of toxic gases and particle pollution. 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 its' remaining toxic residue.

Symptoms can include:

If you already have lung disease, smoke from wood-burning stoves can aggravate the 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.

Safety begins with installation, so it's important to have your wood-burning stove installed by a certified professional installer. And the EPA's resource Burn Wise provides more information about using wood-burning stoves.

If you plan to use a wood-burning stove, be sure to do so with caution.

There are important procedures you need to follow when using a wood-burning stove, including:

  • Ensure that your stove is installed properly and maintained regularly
  • 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 towards the air inlet and woodstove door
  • Don't spread the coals out flat
  • Reload the wood stove adding three pieces at a time, placing the wood on and behind the mound of hot coals you've created.
  • Don't add only one piece of wood at a time
  • Keep the doors of your wood stove closed at all times unless you are loading it with wood
  • Remove ashes from your stove on a regular basis

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:

  • Install and maintain a smoke alarm
  • Install and maintain a carbon monoxide detector
  • Always keep a fire extinguisher handy and in proper, working condition
  • Keep anything flammable away from your wood-burning stove, including drapes, furniture, books, and newspapers
Was this page helpful?

Article Sources