Hidden cost in wood burning: Pollution

By Traci Watson, USA TODAY

As soaring prices for oil and natural gas drive more Americans toward alternative fuels to stay warm this winter, environmental watchdogs are awakening to the unhealthy effects of the pollution from burning wood in the home.

Mike and Matt Westort help their mother look for a wood burning stove in Shrewsbury, Mass. The popularity has some worrying over particle pollution.

By Joe Raedle, Getty Images

Scientists have long known that wood smoke contains carbon monoxide and cancer-causing chemicals. But research shows that wood smoke's major ingredient — tiny particles of soot and liquid pollution — worsens heart disease and triggers asthma attacks.

This "particle pollution," also emitted by diesel engines, kills thousands of Americans a year. Alarmed by such findings, and required by federal law to cut particle pollution, officials across the USA are trying to reduce the smoke from the nation's 37 million home chimneys and 10 million wood stoves.

Locales from Darrington, Wash. (pop. 1,500), to the greater Pittsburgh area are dangling incentives to anyone who junks a wood stove more than 13 years old. Some California towns are asking residents to forgo fires on highly polluted days. And seven Northern states want a federal crackdown on the latest wrinkle in wood power: heating systems that rely on water warmed by burning wood.

The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that wood stoves are responsible for 5% of the smallest, deadliest particles emitted in the USA. That's not much, but many big industrial sources of particles are already working to clean up their emissions. As other sources cut back, "residential wood smoke becomes a very important source of (particle) pollution," says Bill Wehrum, the EPA's top air pollution official.

Economics are driving more Americans to wood, however. The U.S. Energy Information Administration predicted last month that Americans who heat their homes with natural gas will pay nearly 50% more this winter, while heating-oil users face a 32% rise.

The result: fat times for those who sell wood-burning appliances. Some pellet stoves, which burn nuggets of dried wood, are back-ordered 90 days, says John Crouch of the Hearth, Patio & Barbecue Association. Wood-stove dealer Stephen Magnotti of Pittsburgh says customers face five-week waits for a new model. And then there's the fuel.

"We've seen firewood prices go up, and that's if you can find firewood," says Jasen Stock, director of the New Hampshire Timberland Owners Association.

The return to wood-burning stoves could be especially bad news for the 200-plus counties where levels of particle pollution are higher than federal safety limits, such as Washoe County, Nevada, home to Reno.

Susie Kapahee of the county's air quality management district says she is "a little concerned" that particle pollution may be up because of higher fuel prices.

Kapahee and other environmental officials don't worry much about new stoves, which boast either catalytic converters or combustion chambers designed to minimize soot. But a wood stove sold before stiffer regulations took effect in 1992 can emit as much pollution as seven diesel buses, says Guillermo Cole of the Allegheny County, Pa., Health Department.

Such older models account for three-quarters of the nation's wood stoves.

A new wood appliance is also drawing complaints. Known as an outdoor wood boiler, it's a shed where a wood fire heats water. Pipes carry the water into the home for heat and hot water.

More than 75,000 boilers, which have no pollution filters, have been sold nationally since 1999, according to the New York Attorney General's Office. The smoke can be so thick that those living nearby, such as David Cole of Etna, N.H., must take extreme measures.

On some warm nights, "you have to go around the house closing the windows," he says. This summer, he paid a neighbor's hot-water bill to get the man to stop using his boiler.

The broader wood smoke pollution problem becomes acute in winter. In some communities, mostly in the West, 30% to 80% of the wintertime particle pollution is attributed to wood burning in the home, regional and federal agencies say.

Some measures officials are taking:

•Mill Valley, Calif., recently banned the use of wood-burning appliances when air quality is bad. Other cities nearby have similar ordinances.

•The attorneys general of Connecticut, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Jersey, New York and Vermont petitioned the EPA in August to set limits on emissions from outdoor wood boilers. Vermont has proposed its own limits.

•Funded by the EPA and industry, stores in southwestern Pennsylvania offer discounts for replacing fireplaces or wood stoves with new, cleaner models.

The high cost of heating oil drove Traci and Duane Eger of North Fayette, Pa., to use the discount to replace their fireplace with a new wood stove.

"It's an incredible amount of heat," says Duane, yet "there's no color to the smoke that comes out, because virtually everything ends up being burned."

The only hitch, he says: "We'll have to explain how Santa can make it through this device."

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