Residential Wood-Burning: To Burn or Not to Burn

April 10, 2017

By Nancy Daher

Wood-burning infographic. Click to enlarge.

More likely than not, you’ve owned a wood-burning appliance and used it to heat your home during cold, wintry nights. What you might not know, however, is that burning wood emits more pollution in the air than other heating devices. Smoke from residential wood heaters contains toxic pollutants and fine particle pollution, also known as fine particulate matter or the “infamous” PM2.5! Residential wood smoke can increase particle pollution to levels that pose serious concerns to your health as well as the health of your family and neighbors. The Utah Division of Air Quality (DAQ) currently issues a mandatory no-burn action when PM2.5 levels reach unhealthy levels during winter inversions.

This restriction on those cozy wood fires may have impacted your way of living and left you wondering about how much wood-smoke from your fireplace or wood-stove is actually contributing to Utah’s wintertime PM2.5 pollution problem. I know I enjoy a cozy wood fire on occasion with friends and family. You may also be wondering if wood-burners are really that bad? Doesn’t this seem at odds with the renewable and “green” nature of wood?

Well, the answer is not so straightforward. Using a $70,000 appropriation from the 2015 Utah Legislature, scientists at DAQ recently conducted a study to determine the importance of wood-smoke in PM2.5 during Utah’s wintertime air pollution episodes. PM2.5 samples were collected in areas in Northern Utah that are in non-compliance with EPA’s PM2.5 air quality standards, then analyzed for a specific chemical marker from wood-burning. Findings showed that emissions from wood-burning contribute an appreciable amount of pollution during winter inversions in the sampled areas, even during mandatory no-burn periods. Work is also currently ongoing to determine the impact of a wood-stove change-out program on reducing air pollution levels.

So where do we go from here? How can we keep warm while keeping the air clean?

I am not suggesting that you abandon your fireplace or wood-stove…but taking a few steps to reduce the impact of wood-smoke on air quality, especially during inversion episodes, can go a long way to help everyone breathe a little bit easier.

To learn more about this study, please visit our Wood Burn Study webpage for a detailed explanation of study questions, methods, and findings. Check out EPA’s BurnWise program for useful tips on how you can burn wood more efficiently, responsibly, and safely.

I am an environmental scientist at the Utah Division of Air Quality and an adjunct assistant professor in the department of Family and Preventive Medicine at the University of Utah. I received my doctorate degree in environmental engineering from the University of Southern California. This is my first blog entry, and I hope you enjoyed it.