Wood stoves may be killing you with polluted smoke


November 28, 1990|By Susan McGrath | Susan McGrath,Los Angeles Times Syndicate

IT IS A LITTLE like the punch line to a bad joke. Your wood stove causes cancer.

It's downright un-American, that's what it is.

The problem, of course, is not your wood stove. The problem is thousands of wood stoves in densely populated areas. Their heavy, particulate-laden smoke curls lazily around rooftops and, on windless days, settles thickly in the air around us. Not to mention in us.

When this happens, air quality experts in hundreds of American communities from Maine to Colorado to Alaska issue burning bans. Put out your fires, folks, and switch on your furnaces.

Wood-stove smoke can be a nasty brew of volatile, carcinogenic organic compounds, carbon monoxide and zillions of particulates. Every hour, your old wood stove can spew as much as a half cup of particulates -- each 1/100th as thick as a hair -- into the air around you.

The smoke pollutes the Great Outdoors. It can pollute the Great Indoors, too. A Michigan State University study found that preschoolers living with a wood stove are twice as likely to have respiratory illnesses as are children without wood stoves, especially when those stoves are older models and improperly installed.

It's sad, but true. It smells divine to the nose, but it stinks for the public health.

If you use a wood stove to heat your house, and this information hasn't cooled your ardor, use these tips from the Washington State Department of Ecology to maximize your heat output and minimize your pollution contribution.

* Make sure you've got the right stove for the job. A stove too large for the space will force you to use the damper a lot, cooling your fire and generating more and stinkier smoke.

* Burn only dry, seasoned wood that has been split for at least six months.

* Provide a generous supply of air. Fire needs lots of oxygen to reach the high temperatures at which it will burn cleanly and give off plenty of heat.

* Get the fire crackling merrily when you first start up. A hot fire will heat up the stove enough to burn the wood completely and cleanly.

* Buy a stove thermometer and use it to see that your stove stays around 300 to 500 degrees Fahrenheit. Cooler fires produce too much pollution.

* Don't bank fires, or damp them down, to make them last through the night. A smoldering fire turns your wood stove from a heat generator into a smoke pot.

* Never burn rubbish in your wood stove. It is illegal in most states. And it will destroy your catalytic converter and gum up your flue. Don't burn treated wood or lumber, either. Burning this stuff releases toxic metals and may create extremely poisonous dioxins and furans.

* If your wood stove is an older, uncertified model, consider replacing it with a certified stove as soon as possible. Buy a brand-new 1990 Phase II EPA-certified stove. These are a significant improvement over the old stoves -- contributing as much as 75 percent less pollution.

* Look for a local dealer who can deliver and install the stove. Make sure whoever installs your stove is certified by the Wood Heating Education and Research Foundation.

* Now here's the kicker. Don't resell your old stove. Instead, call a scrap dealer and sell the stove as scrap iron. Though you won't get as much for it, you're not doing the environment any favors unless you retire it permanently from use. Think of all the brownie points you can garner to counteract your car guilt, or disposable diaper guilt, or whichever brand of '90s guilt you suffer. After all, clean air is worth it.

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