FairWarining Investigates

Wood Stoves Under Fire As Health Risk

A bird cruises through smoky skies in Butte County, Calif., where wood stoves are busy. (Photo Bill Husa and front page photo by Ty Barbour/Chico Enterprise-Record.)

CHICO, Calif. — When Darrell McGillis, 82, steps outside to fetch the newspaper on a winter morning, his lungs serve as his personal barometer. If the air is thick with chimney smoke, his nostrils and lungs begin to burn.

“If I spend any time out there, I have to take a breath of my inhaler when I get back inside,” said McGillis, a cardiac patient whose lungs are wracked with a chronic disorder. He relies on three separate prescription devices to ease his breathing. On smoky days, he stays indoors.

Wood smoke divides the healthy from the vulnerable in towns such as Chico, with its chilly winters and a wealth of firewood. Smoke from 11,000 residential wood-burning stoves is the number one cause of wintertime air pollution in this city 90 miles north of Sacramento that is known for almond orchards, mountain views and Sierra Nevada beer.

Doctors here and nationwide are increasingly blaming residential smoke for aggravating problems such as asthma and McGillis’ chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder. They warn that smoke exposure can even lead to heart attacks and strokes.

Yet in a state that normally leads the nation in fighting air pollution, wood smoke is not a priority.

California is famous for its aggressive campaigns targeting high-emission cars, diesel-burning trucks, second-hand smoke and now greenhouse gases.

But it lags behind some other states when it comes to a statewide approach to combat air pollution caused by smoke from wood-burning stoves and fireplaces.

State air quality officials label wood-burning stoves a “local issue.” They have delegated responsibility for reining in wood smoke to the 35 air pollution control districts statewide — including rural areas in Northern California where thousands of households rely on wood fuel for some or all of their heat.

Larger districts such as the one overseeing the metropolitan Bay Area have the staff, resources and political will to restrict wood burning and to help aid residents buy cleaner-burning, EPA-approved stoves.

But in rural areas such as Chico, local districts have neither cash nor clout. Last month, residents were startled and chagrined to learn that Klamath County, Ore., a smaller county 200 miles to the north, has landed $900,000 in federal stimulus money to aid residents there to buy new stoves.

Klamath County garnered that money because Oregon clean air and energy officials teamed up to win $2 million for stove trade-outs, including money for stoves that burn wood pellets instead of smokier logs.

No such stimulus money is flowing to Chico, or to other areas of California suffering from wintertime air pollution from wood burning.

Although the California Energy Commission has obtained $314.5 million in federal stimulus funds, none of that money is earmarked for cleaner stoves. Instead, the stimulus money will go to promote energy efficiency, renewable energy and jobs, a spokeswoman said.

Some of that money is paying for the current “Cash for Appliances” trade-out program for refrigerators, clothes washers and air conditioners. That disturbs officials at the Butte County Air Quality Management District, which includes Chico. The district flunked federal air quality standards on 11 days last winter because of wood smoke, and officials there believe they deserve some stimulus money, too.

But the commission has no plans to finance wood stove trade-outs.

“We don’t consider wood and pellets an energy source,” said commission spokeswoman Michele Demetras. “It is not within our purview.”

Nor is residential smoke a direct responsibility of the powerful California Air Resources Board.

The state air board deals largely with sources of air pollution that move — such as cars, trucks and train engines — while the local districts handle so-called “stationary sources” such as wood-burning stoves, board officials say.

Yet in the offices of the state’s health agencies, concern is mounting that wood smoke can be harmful.

Scores of scientific studies have concluded that tiny particles in wood smoke can threaten human health, worsening breathing problems, speeding up heart rate, provoking blood clots and even causing heart attacks and strokes. The smoke also contains chemicals known to cause cancer.

“I’m convinced that it causes potentially serious health effects in some people, particularly asthmatics,” said Dr. Michael Lipsett, chief of the environmental health investigations branch at the state Department of Public Health.

Some activists believe California should classify wood smoke a “toxic air contaminant” just as it does second-hand smoke.

Elsewhere in the West, some states and regions began regulating wood smoke decades ago:

** Oregon led the nation in the early 1980s with its stove certification program, a precursor to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s national program. Its legislature recently passed a law requiring that non-certified wood stoves be removed from homes when they are sold.

** Reno, Nev., has limited wood burning since 1987, prompted in part by concerns that air pollution would harm tourism. “The air just looked bad,” said Andy Goodrich, air quality director at the Washoe County Health District.

** The Seattle area adopted curbs on residential wood burning after a severe 1985 smog problem that closed the airport was linked not to industrial pollution but to the smoke from residents’ stoves. Since then, wood smoke has been slashed by three-quarters or more, said Jim Nolan, executive director of the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency.

** In Libby, Mont., wintertime smog was reduced by 28 percent in the year after a major stove change-out. Starting in 2005, the local health department replaced nearly 1,200 old stoves with new models, pellet stoves or gas or wood heat, using money from the state of Montana, the EPA, the stove industry and other sources. University of Montana researchers believe that air pollution inside the homes of Libby residents may have dropped even more sharply.

Asked why California has not adopted a more ambitious statewide approach to reduce wood smoke, Lynn Terry, the state air board’s deputy executive director, responded in a written statement.

“Most other states have only state-level air agencies. California is different,” the statement said. “State law divides authority between local air agencies and the state Air Resources Board. Regulating residential smoke is a local program.”

Some of those local air agencies, however, cannot assemble strong local programs due to lack of funds and rural residents’ anti-regulatory sentiment.

For instance, Butte County residents successfully blocked a local attempt last year to limit wood burning. Some called it government intrusion into their homes. Others said that they can’t afford shelling out as much as $3,000 for a new stove plus installation.

Many in and around Chico said that to heat their homes in tight economic times, they rely on the cheap firewood produced when older almond and walnut orchards are cleared to make way for new, higher-producing trees.

But in Chico and nationwide, air regulators were forced to ramp up efforts to curb residential smoke after EPA tightened its rules for particle pollution in 2006.

A statewide review shows that 17 of the state’s 35 districts have enacted some kind of wood-burning rules.

They include the districts overseeing Los Angeles and the Bay Area, where fireplaces used for aesthetics far outnumber wood-burning stoves.

For instance, an estimated 1.4 million fireplaces — and only 39,500 wood stoves — can be found in the giant district encompassing Orange County and the urban parts of Los Angeles, Riverside and San Bernardino counties, said Sam Atwood, spokesman for the South Coast Air Quality Management District.

Soon, fireplace and stove owners throughout the South Coast area will be forced to adjust to mandatory no-burn days. Starting in November 2011, the district will ban burning an estimated 10 to 25 days a year, as needed, to reduce particle pollution.

Already, the district has spent $616,000 in $125 incentives to retrofit more than 6,000 wood-burning fireplaces with gas logs.

Cooler temperatures in the Bay Area foster more wood-burning than in the Los Angeles area, creating smoke that historically has made up one-third of particulate pollution in winter months.

So the sprawling nine-county local air district launched mandatory no-burn days in 2008, targeting an estimated 1.4 million fireplaces. The district set aside $500,000 to help residents switch to gas logs, but only $251,600 has been spent so far on 545 change-outs.

Air districts in the San Joaquin Valley and Sacramento have also adopted mandatory no-burn days. But a number of rural districts have steered away from such rules, especially in colder northern areas where, as in Chico, many residents can’t afford new, cleaner-burning stoves.

Now the City of Chico is considering its own mandatory no-burn ordinance, which could be in effect by next winter. But without vouchers or other aid, many residents cannot afford modern stoves to clean the air their families breathe.

Chico physician James Wood can tell from the acrid smell in the examining room if a child’s family heats with wood. If the child suffers from asthma, Wood suggests the parents buy a cleaner stove, but many low-income families cannot afford one.

“It would be like telling them, if they had an old car, that they had to trade up to a Cadillac,” Wood said.

Deborah Schoch is a senior writer for The California HealthCare Foundation Center for Health Reporting, an independent, nonpartisan news organization based at the Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism at the University of Southern California. Her reporting was part of a recent project on wood-burning smoke with the Chico Enterprise-Record, and City Editor Steve Schoonover contributed to this report.

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13 comments to “Wood Stoves Under Fire As Health Risk”

  1. Smoky Joe

    Sometimes living in a conservative state makes me crazy, but no one who is sane would propose a ban on stoves in Virginia. Rural folk of limited means need their stoves. I would never live anywhere that did not let me burn wood for heat.

  2. Maelduin

    As I understand it, modern woodstoves with airwash technology give off virtually no smoke; the ‘secondary burning’ caused by the airwash method actually burns the smoke.

  3. smokeghost

    RAWSEP, Burning Issues, and other air quality not for profits’ are on the bandwagon of energy corporate sponsorship to promote new technologies that are economically healthy for them. Its engrained in Maurice Strong’s Environmental Study programmes that have formed them. Raw science and economics are still far from a harmony for sustainable development. Wood heating because it is not dependent on manufactured fuels and electricity is seen as a potential market problem. Wood heating appliances do not pollute absolutely. They only do so due to incorrect use and them not using available technologies to work in adverse atmospheric conditions. Low cost regulation should be enforced but banning would be ultimately self-destructive due to the perpetual increase of costs from alternatives.

    Pollution from them cannot be solved by appliance centric technologies alone and they do require fine tuned standards that include their entire exhaust system. It is my suspicion that these not for profits push what their funders require them to push – in the name of ‘energy star’ electric/ manufactured bio fuels/ natural gas or propane – to convince the public they need to change. The reality is a wood stove is self sufficient, sustainable, carbon neutral and more reliable in the event of a natural disaster, market shock or power outage than alternatives. Even with asthma/ allergy irritating or life shortening scientific research the benefits could easily be quantified against the industry polluting – non sustainable alternatives. The appliances and flue systems at the end of their life are almost entirely recyclable. Their fuel is sustainable with ethical forestry management and practices. Those who protest to make way for cleaner grid based systems have to consider the transition phase. Wood heaters need to stay but they need to be built and installed correctly. Certification of the appliances is not enough. That only sells new appliances, pays local government regulators and new industry. It’s ecologically damaging though economically stimulating. It’s madness and nothing changes in the primary environmental destructive forces from the banker’s creative economics.

    Peer reviewed science has been hijacked by energy corporate – world bank socialism. We need to look after are own interests and survival. Socialism will kill capitalism which is a great shame. Everyone deserves a chance and the more we’re at the mercy of policy the less we will do ourselves. Freedom is about being able create for ourselves and think for ourselves. For me and my family that is staying warm and secure. It’s energy/ domestically poor button pushers at the mercy of socialism against motivated, resourceful capitalists who have more of a chance to get ahead and compete in the market – who think for themselves.

    Promoting energy controlling policies without considering the importance of transition is self-destructive. Yes. Smart grid systems for cities using solar tapped directly into the grid is an example of good modern technology. More wind power, wave power etc is great. My feeling however is not to take such an aggressive stance on home heating. A home should be at least 50% self sufficient in its energy use. Heating with the ability to boil water is a basic need all should have without being at the mercy of market politics.

  4. Air Is Precious Linda Baker Beaudin

    No one should be forced to leave their home becuase of Woodburning that continues to destroy our health, quality of life and our fragile environment.

    We all deserve the right and common decency to breathe healthy air–woodsmoke-free.

    Everyone suffers from Woodsmoke Pollution. Even the healthy.

    Woodburning stoves, Woodburning fireplaces, pellet stoves, Outdoor Woodboilers (OWBs), all outdoor open air burning, pellet plants and biomass plants continue to pollute and saturate our air and lungs with the deadly cancer causing toxins found in Woodsmoke.

    Woodsmoke Pollution has been linked with Asthma, COPD, Cardiovascular, Cancer, Cardiopulmonary, SIDS and other diseases. People are suffering and dying from Woodsmoke related diseases.

    Everything around us is negatively affected by Woodsmoke. Take pro-active action by bringing awareness to your leaders in your community. Without laws to ban Woodsmoke in urban areas, you too could become another statistic and a Victim of Woodsmoke Pollution. It can happen to anyone, anywhere, anytime. Only by-laws to end all outdoor open air burning, and regulations implemented to phase out the use of Woodburing stoves, Woodburning fireplaces and Woodboilers (OWBs) will provide us with the pure air we need to breathe woodsmoke-free each season of our life.

    Become informed today, your health and life depend on it!

    Breathe Healthy Air http://breathehealthyair.blogspot.com/

    Clean Air Revival http://burningissues.org/

    Freedom of Air http://www.myspace.com/freedomofair

  5. Donna Martin

    Of course Wood smoke is very harmful for people’s lungs. So, those people which have asthma should leave such smoky areas.

  6. Sally Sablan

    I have a wood burning insert that is Phase II EPA inspected. Do I still have to follow the burn days?

  7. Frank

    I made a big mistake: I sold the old house that is next door to our new home. The first thing the new owners did was build a fire in the shop woodstove, and now I am up all night with asthma. I had been asthma free for over six months, now this.

    There must be something we can to do stop this burning of wood. We stopped them from smoking in restaurants so why can we stop them from contaminating our neighborhoods with a wood stove, which is like burning tons of cigarrettes!

  8. Linda Baker Beaudin (Air Is Precious)

    Woodsmoke Pollution presents a grave harm to everyone. When people are exposed to Woodsmoke emissions, damage can be done long before the disease is evident or discovered. Exposure to all Woodsmoke is toxic and exacerbates the many multiple diseases faced by millions world wide. Asthma, COPD, respiratory, strokes, cancer and cardiovascular have all been linked to the toxic emissions we inhale from Woodsmoke.
    Scientific evidence and data absolutely confirm that the toxic emissions we inhale from Woodsmoke are killing us!
    See: Clean Air Revival http://burningissues.org/
    Become informed about the dangers of Woodsmoke Pollution. Make Woodsmoke Pollution your number one priority. Your life and breath depend on it!!
    Take proactive action in your community. Contact your elected officials, your Government, your city and board council members, and Mayors. Write them, phone them, and tell them how Woodsmoke is harming your life and your community and your environment. Now is the time to act.
    We each deserve the right and common decency to breathe healthy air–woodsmoke-free.
    That will only become possible if we see a Ban on all outdoor open air burns and new regulations to phase out Woodsmoke from Woodstoves and Woodburning fireplaces.
    We must consider the health and well being of our children and the future generations.
    A quote from Dietrich Bonhoeffer says it all:
    “The ultimate test of a moral society is the kind of world that it leaves to its children.”

  9. Cathy

    Even new wood stoves still emit a lot of fine particle pollution; and no amount of smoke can be considered safe to breathe. Breathing wood smoke is a health risk for everyone, but it’s especially harmful for those most at risk, including seniors, people with asthma or other respiratory health concerns, infants, and children. More and more people now realize that it really is time for us to heed the advice of a growing number of physicians and researchers, and organizations such as the American Lung Association . . . and avoid burning wood, choosing cleaner burning alternatives to wood wherever possible, especially in residential areas.

  10. Ann

    It’s also important to think about the many costs of #2 heating oil, which is what most people use at least some of the time in northern NY. For many, it is the backup while wood burning provides most of the heat when we are at home. How does the air pollution from heating oil compare with that from a newer wood stove? How does the threat to the eco-system compare? Look at the situation in the Gulf of Mexico — this is the result of our having to go farther and dig deeper for the oil that remains, and yes, we have no choice but to heat our homes in winter, or abandon them for warmer climates. I think a much better option would be to make wood burning technology cleaner and help people upgrade their stoves. At some point, it’s clear, we are going to have to regulate each person’s carbon footprint. Just having the money to keep and heat a huge house does not justify the waste and danger to everyone else.

  11. Michael O'Rourke

    The fact “burning is an option” is really not true for many people. Burning wood is often the only source of heat in some states (I live in Northern Minnesota – 30 to 40 below zero not uncommon) and lack of heat will cause lack of breathing! The solution seems so simple to me – simply require those that burn with wood to change to a new EPA listed unit WHEN THE OLD UNIT NEEDS REPLACING OR EARLIER. The new units kick out less than 6 grams of particulate per hour (most under 2.5 grams) while older units kick out 60+ grams, a huge difference. Also, since the new units are more efficient the same or greater amount of heat can be generated with about 1/3 less wood which equals less cost. I realize that not everyone can afford to “change out” a unit and those are the people that need some sort of assistance from some agency either public or private. Wood burning is not going away, and in fact with the new technology and the potential increase in fossil fuel prices, it is becoming a very viable option from a cost savings perspective — we just need to be as efficient as possible for everyones’ benfit.

  12. Shirley

    When it comes to residents health vs wood smoke, there is no debating that something drastic needs to be done. If nothing is done, the problem will escalate until out of control.
    It should not be that difficult to create a bylaw or ban in each of the counties and let people know that burning is an option but breathing is not!
    Time to end the pollution of the air that everyone needs to breathe. Don’t allow the burners to continue to create health issues for others. From reading comments online, I notice they all can afford an Internet connection to fight for what they assume are their ‘rights’ to continue dumping toxins into the air.

  13. Dale Ernest Stephens


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