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Wood heating: It’s pleasant, but what about our health and the environment

Wood heating: It’s pleasant, but what about our health and the environment

Wood heating: It’s pleasant, but what about our health and the environment

With the arrival of the cold weather, nothing seems better to warm our heart and our body than a nice fire in a wood stove or fireplace.  It’s a well-known fact that a fire roaring in a fireplace is very comforting.  However, if we look beyond the esthetic and ambient benefits, we risk being surprised to discover that our little fire on Friday night is not as harmless as we think.

Smoke from wood heating pollutes the air: inside and outside

Every time we light a fire, it produces a smoke composed of over a hundred different toxic substances that, in addition to affecting the air inside our home, can also infiltrate neighborhood residences.

You probably don’t know but smog that occurs in the winter is caused by a high concentration of fine particles, mostly from residential wood burning.

Moreover, during a smog warning, it is strictly forbidden to use any type of wood-burning appliance except in case of electrical failure lasting more than three hours.

Effects of wood heating smoke on health

The studies on this subject are fairly recent, but they clearly demonstrate the link between wood heating and many health problems.

Wood heating does not only affect the quality of the air inside our home and the outside, the smoke from burning wood is harmful to everyone. However, some people are more sensitive to it:

  • People with chronic heart or lung problems can see their symptoms worsen if they breathe in fine particles.
  • Older people who suffer more often from chronic illnesses.
  • Children since their respiratory and immune systems are still developing. Their respiration rate is higher, which means they could absorb more pollutants when the air is polluted.

Basically smoke worsens the symptoms of asthma, childhood bronchitis and lung cancer.

Potential effects on health of high concentrations in ambient air of pollutants associated with wood smoke

  • Carbon monoxide (CO) – Headaches, nausea, dizziness and aggravated angina in individuals with cardiac problems
  • Volatile organic compounds (VOC) – Irritation of the respiratory tract and breathing difficulties. Some VOCs, like benzene, are carcinogenic.
  • Acrolein and formaldehyde  – Irritation of the eyes and respiratory tract
  • Fine particles (PM2.5) – Irritation of the respiratory tract, aggravation of cardiovascular diseases and increased mortality.
  • Nitrogen oxides (NOx) – Irritation of the respiratory system, breathing pain, coughing, pulmonary edema
  • Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH) – Some PAHs are considered or suspected to be mutagenic or carcinogenic
  • Dioxins and furans – Probably carcinogenic

What to do to reduce the impact

Here are a few easy things we can do to limit our exposure to pollutants:

  • Avoid using wood as the main source of heating. Other heating methods such as electricity and gas are less polluting.
  • Do not burn household waste such as plastics and treated or painted wood.
  • Depending on availability, avoid softwood such as fir, pine or spruce and use hardwood that has dried for at least six months, such as oak, maple or birch. Hardwood reduces the quantities of emitted air pollutants and of creosote, which clogs up the chimney lining and is a frequent cause of fires.
  • When considering the purchase of a stove or fireplace: give preference to electric stoves and fireplaces. Some models can be installed without change to your existing setup. Electric heating is non-polluting. As a plus, if no chimney is involved, 100% of the produced heat remains inside the home.

Considering all this information, many will no longer see a late-night fire in the same way. The important thing is that each does their part for the environment, but also for our health and that of the people around us.

Jackie Beaudoin, Leclerc Insurance and Financial Services
Sources: Santé Montréal, Environnement et Lutte contre les changements climatiques