Smoke is made up of a complex mixture of gases and particles produced when wood and other organic matter burn. A major health threat from smoke comes from fine particles (also called particle pollution, particulate matter, or PM). These microscopic particles can get into your eyes and respiratory system, where they can cause health problems such as burning eyes, runny nose, and illnesses such as bronchitis. In addition to particle pollution, wood smoke contains several toxic harmful air pollutants including: benzene, formaldhyde, acrolein and methane.
How Particle Pollution Can Affect Your Health
Particle pollution exposure can lead to a variety of health effects. For example, numerous studies link particle levels to increased hospital admissions and emergency room visits—and even to early death. Research indicates that obesity or diabetes may increase risk. New or expectant mothers may also want to take precautions to protect the health of their babies, because some studies indicate they may be at increased risk.
Both long- and short-term particle exposures have been linked to health Long-term exposures, such as those experienced by people living for many years in areas with high particle levels, have been associated with problems such as reduced lung function and the development of chronic bronchitis—and even premature death.
Some studies also suggest that long-term PM 2.5 exposures may be linked to cancer and to harmful developmental and reproductive effects, such as infant mortality and low birth weight.
Short-term exposures to particles (hours or days) can aggravate lung disease, causing asthma attacks and acute bronchitis, and may also increase susceptibility to respiratory infections.
It's important to limit your exposure to smoke—especially if you are more susceptible than others:
- If you have heart or lung disease, such as congestive heart failure, angina, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, emphysema or asthma, you may experience health effects earlier and at lower smoke levels than healthy people.
- Older adults are more likely to be affected by smoke, possibly because they are more likely to have chronic heart or lung diseases than younger people.
- Children also are more susceptible to smoke for several reasons: their respiratory systems are still developing; they breathe more air (and air pollution) per pound of body weight than adults; and they're more likely to be active outdoors.
To help protect your health and the health of loved ones, make sure to follow these best burn tips when heating with wood:
- Burn dry, seasoned wood that has been split, stacked, covered and stored.
- Test wood with a moisture meter (20 percent moisture or less is best).
- Use a cleaner-burning gas or wood stove.
Also, the state of Washington's Department of Ecology has published a useful booklet entitled, Health Effects of Wood Smoke (PDF) (15pp, 206k, About PDF)
EPA Burn Wise Health and Safety Awareness Kit provides health and safety outreach materials to help reduce residential wood smoke pollution. To promote best burn tips, we’ve developed web-ready infographics, social media messages, fast facts, an article template and other tools.
To learn more about asthma, visit www.epa.gov/asthma, www.noattacks.org or www.cdc.gov/asthma.