Photo: Wood burning releases considerable amounts of airborne pollutants.

Wood Burning and the Environment

Because wood is natural and trees can be replanted, some people believe that burning wood is better for the environment than using fossil fuels. However, wood burning emits high levels of harmful particulate pollution, toxins, short-lived climate pollutants and other compounds. As we’ve noted elsewhere, even though wood is a natural substance, burning it is neither healthy nor good for the environment.


Localized Carcinogenic Pollution

Wood burning creates large quantities of localized outdoor air pollution, which has been declared a Group 1 human carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer. It also emits toxins such as PAHs, dioxins, benzene, mercury, formaldehyde and arsenic into our environment, to name a few. Many of these are harmful persistent chemicals that don’t readily break down in the environment and build up inside human and animal body tissues.


Wood Smoke vs Tobacco Smoke

Tobacco smoke is, like wood smoke, a natural biomass smoke, but few people argue that cigarette smoke is harmless. Wood smoke contains many of the same harmful chemical compounds as tobacco smoke, but in much greater quantities. Heating a home with wood for a week can create more toxic chemicals than in the smoke from a million cigarettes (PDF).


Photo: Aerial view of a Los Angeles freeway.Residential wood burning creates more fine particulate (PM2.5) pollution in California than all of the vehicles on the road, including passenger cars and heavy-duty commercial and municipal trucks and buses.More Wood Smoke Than Car Exhaust

As a World Health Organization fact sheet states: “The air pollutant linked most closely to excess death and disease is PM2.5”.  Many people think that cars are polluting, but wood stoves are much, much worse.


The Puget Sound Clean Air Agency estimates that heating a home with a correctly-operated US EPA-certified wood stove results in the emission of 97 lbs of PM2.5 annually. According to the Australian Air Quality Group, this makes the average wood stove as polluting as 2,200 gasoline-fueled passenger cars.


According to the California Air Resources Board, wood stoves and fireplaces contributed an average of 50.4 tons a day of PM2.5 in the state in 2012, compared to 43.07 tons from the exhaust of all motor vehicles on the road combined — passenger cars, heavy-duty trucks, RVs, commercial and municipal buses, school buses, etc.


Persistent Environmental Pollutants

Carried through the air on microscopic particles of wood, the toxins in wood smoke either make their way into the lungs, brains and bloodstreams of humans and animals, or they eventually wind up on the ground and in our waterways, where they become part of our environment and our food chain. It doesn’t matter if a carcinogen such as benzene comes from a factory or from a wood stove. It is the same, harmful chemical.


While in the atmosphere, some of the toxins in wood smoke chemically change and may become even more harmful. Some also contribute to ozone formation.


A study of the the ecotoxicities of urban particulate matter found that wood smoke is more ecotoxic than particulates emitted from modern diesel engines.


Wood Burning and Our Climate

Wood burning also emits short-lived climate pollutants such as black carbon, brown carbon, methane and carbon monoxide, and raises levels of atmospheric CO2 during the immediate crucial time frame when controlling CO2 emissions matters most.


Trees are environmentally friendly and green. But burning them is not. Burning wood harms our health and our environment.


Environment References

There is also related information on our Toxins page.

For more information about wood burning and environmental issues, please follow these links: