2010 March 8: WI DNR: OWBs Potential Health Impacts

RAWSEP View: Don’t burn wood, period.


2010 March 8: WI DNR: OWBs  Potential Health Impacts

Outdoor wood boilers (OWBs) have the potential to aggravate or cause health problems.  Wood smoke contains a variety of pollutants that can affect nearby residents.  When DNR air quality alerts warn of unhealthy levels for particulate matter, wood burning can contribute to air pollution over a wide area.  Emissions from buring trash and other inappropriate materials in OWBs are typically of greater health concern than burning clean wood.

Wood Smoke

At the relatively low temperatures OWBs operate, the stoves can produce thick smoke and creosote. This smoke may contain unhealthy levels of toxic air pollutants, including known carcinogens.


People exposed to wood smoke from OWBs may experience:

  • Eye and nose irritation
  • Breathing difficulty
  • Wheezing
  • Coughing
  • Headaches

People with heart disease, asthma, emphysema, or other respiratory diseases are especially sensitive. In particular, wood smoke can be harmful to the elderly, babies, children, and pregnant women.


The chance a person will experience health effects as a result of exposure to smoke depends on the concentration of air pollutants they breathe and the duration of their exposure.  Because most OWBs have very short stacks and are located close to homes, there is a greater potential for emissions to create a health hazard for those living near the unit, including neighbors.  In areas where homes are not close together, and where smoke is not trapped by surrounding hills, the use of an OWB may not be a health hazard for neighbors. 

    Pollutants in Wood Smoke

    Wood smoke contains a mixture of at least 100 different compounds in the form of gases and fine sooty particulate matter.  Fine particles (PM2.5) are so small that they behave much like gases.  They can penetrate homes, even when windows and doors are closed.  Fine particles can lodge deep in the lungs and are not easily expelled.  

    Criteria Pollutants

    Some of the major components of wood smoke are on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA’s) list of criteria pollutants in the National Ambient Air Quality Standard, including:

    • Carbon monoxide
    • Nitrous oxides
    • Sulfur dioxide
    • Particulate matter

    Ozone, another criteria pollutant, is not directly emitted but the precursor chemical components of it are in wood smoke. 

    Health Impacts of Criteria Pollutants

    The criteria pollutants were singled out by the EPA because of their negative impacts on human health, which include:

    • Coughing and difficult or painful breathing
    • Increased susceptibility to respiratory illnesses like pneumonia and bronchitis
    • Eye and nose irritation
    • Hospitalization for heart or lung diseases
    • Premature death 

    Burning Garbage and other Inappropriate Materials

    Particleboard, treated, stained, painted, or wet wood and trash should never be burned in OWBs.  The burning of most solid waste materials, including treated wood, plastics, rubber, and asphalt, is prohibited in Wisconsin. The combustion of treated wood, plastic, and other garbage releases heavy metals and toxic chemicals such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons [Exit DNR] and dioxins.  Exposure to dioxins is linked to skin problems, reproductive or developmental problems, and increased risk of cancer.  Trash burning [Exit DNR] is especially harmful because it releases chemicals that are persistent in the environment, polluting our air, food, lakes and streams.

    This entry was posted in UVWXYZ States = UT, VT, VA, WA, WV, WI, WY = Utah, Vermont, Virginia, Washington State,West Virginia, Wisconsin, Wyoming. Bookmark the permalink.

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