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Effects of Wood Smoke on Health

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Burning wood is a day-to-day practice for many people for various reasons, but its smoke has adverse effects on health. Read the article to know more.

Medically reviewed by

Dr. Basti Bharatesh Devendra

Published At May 25, 2023
Reviewed AtJanuary 18, 2024

Introduction-

Many people burn wood in their homes for heat and ambiance during the cold months. The smell of burning wood is even pleasant to some people, but even though wood is a natural substance, exposure to wood smoke can be hazardous to one’s health. The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reports that smoke from wood burning is made up of a complex mixture of gasses and fine particles, also called particle pollution particulate matter or PM. Other than particle pollution, wood smoke contains various types of toxic and harmful air pollutants, such as benzene formaldehyde, acrolein, and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. Carbon monoxide is also produced during wood burning. These substances in microscopic particles can get into the eyes or the respiratory system, where they can cause health problems.

What Does the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Suggest?

The EPA states that short-term exposure to wood smoke particles can aggravate lung disease, causing asthma (a lung disease in which airways get narrow and swollen) attacks and acute bronchitis (inflammation of the large airways of the lung), and may also increase susceptibility to respiratory infections. Long-term exposures are associated with problems including reduced lung function and the development of chronic bronchitis (swelling and irritation of the bronchial tubes), as well as premature death. Some studies also suggest that long-term exposures to very fine particle pollution may be linked to cancer and harmful developmental and reproductive effects such as infant mortality and low birth weight. The EPA reports that wood smoke can affect everyone, but children, teenagers, older adults, people with lung diseases including asthma and COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease), or people with heart diseases are the most vulnerable. Research indicates that obesity or diabetes may also increase the risk.

What Are the Hidden Harms of Wood Smoke?

Wood burning releases a number of harmful gasses and tiny, invisible particles of black soot and dust called ‘particulate matter’. Not all wood smoke is visible, but it pollutes indoor and outdoor air and harms health. When people inhale these tiny particles, they enter the bloodstream and can damage the organs. Wood smoke directly harms the health of an individual’s family and the community. Reducing and avoiding wood burning is the best thing one can do to breathe cleaner air into the home and neighborhood.

The EPA estimates that the lifetime cancer risk from wood smoke is twelve times greater than an equal volume of secondhand tobacco smoke. Burning ten pounds of wood over one hour produces more PAHs than a hundred and twenty thousand cigarettes. Other unique characteristics of wood smoke contribute to its extreme toxicity. The free radicals in wood smoke are active 40 times longer than those in cigarette smoke. They are extremely small, allowing them to be inhaled more easily and less likely to be exhaled than the particles from tailpipes. The small particles are picked up from the lungs by the bloodstream and carried throughout the body, where they can actually penetrate into individual cells and alter the chemical functioning of chromosomes.

How Much Wood Smoke Is a Person Exposed to?

Both the amount of wood smoke someone is exposed to and the levels of harmful chemicals in the smoke depend on:

  • How well the wood is burning, which further depends upon certain factors such as the type of wood, temperature, the amount of oxygen, and the moisture content of the wood.

  • How quickly the smoke rises and spreads. Since many people burn more wood when it is cold, it becomes mainly a problem in the winter. Winter weather conditions involving stagnant air and temperature inversions limit air movement, trap air pollution close to the ground, and keep air pollution in the breathing space.

  • The amount of time someone spends breathing wood smoke, both indoors and outdoors. Wood stove worsens air quality, both inside and outside. Wood smoke does not rise and spread during winter temperature inversions. It tends to hang close to the ground and enters houses, yards, schools, hospitals, etc. Downwind areas, areas with temperature inversions, and valleys with poor air circulation are mostly affected. Wood smoke particles are so tiny that they remain in the air for long periods and easily get into buildings with the incoming cold air.

What Are the General Health Effects of Wood Smoke?

Breathing wood smoke can have short and long-term effects.

The short-term effects include:

  • Irritated eyes, throat, sinuses, and lungs.

  • Headaches.

  • Reduced lung function.

  • Lung inflammation or swelling.

  • Increased risk of lower respiratory diseases.

  • Risk of heart attack and stroke.

The long-term effects include:

  • Chronic lung disease including bronchitis and emphysema (lung condition that causes shortness of breath).

  • Chemical and structural changes in the lungs.

  • Cancer.

How to Reduce the Health Impacts of Woodsmoke?

The following methods can be adopted to reduce the risk of health effects from wood smoke:

  • Heating the Home-

    • It is advised that one should make sure that the house is properly weatherized to keep in the heat.

    • Instead of wood heat, one should consider cleaner heating fuels like gas, electricity, or heating oil.

  • Burning the Wood-

    • The wood should be stacked before splitting.

    • Wood pieces that are three and a half to six inches in diameter dry easily and burn best.

    • The wood should be stored at least six inches off the ground to reduce exposure to ground moisture and should be covered to protect it from the weather.

    • Small fires should be built to help the wood burn completely. Adding too much wood all at once can cut down on the air to the fire and leave unburned wood.

    • People should use the right wood stove, pellet stove, or fireplace for their homes.

  • Smoke in the Neighborhood-
    • One should exercise or do other physical activities when the smoke is less in the air.

    • Close the windows, vents, and doors, and plug drafts while there is smoke in the neighborhood.

  • Air Cleaners-

    • While using air cleaners in the home, one should make sure they have high-efficiency particulate-absorbing (HEPA) filters.

Conclusion-

It can be concluded that wood smoke from the use of wood fuels, including firewood and charcoal, for domestic cooking needs, can have adverse health effects, and this exposure is also associated with numerous disease outcomes, especially respiratory diseases in women and children under five years of age. There is an urgent need for effective strategies to reduce exposure in order to control the morbidity and mortality rate concerned with wood smoke exposure in the general population.

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Dr. Basti Bharatesh Devendra
Dr. Basti Bharatesh Devendra

Dermatology

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