Research shows outdoor wood furnaces are health hazard

Oct 25th, 2010 | By | Category: Featured Story, Health

Environment and Human Health, Inc.’s (EHHI) newly released report, The Dangers from Outdoor Wood Furnaces, shows that current regulations for outdoor wood furnaces (OWFs) are not sufficient to protect human health.

Wood smoke contains many of the same toxic compounds that are found in cigarette smoke. Just a few of them include benzene, formaldehyde, and 1,3-butadiene, all three of which are carcinogenic.

Currently, some states have OWF “set-back” regulations of 100 feet, others have “set-backs” of 200 feet and some states have no regulations at all.

Full text of report
Summary
Recommendations

EHHI measured two particle sizes found by EPA to be contained in wood smoke and designated to be the most dangerous to human health. These particles are PM 2.5 and PM 0.5.

The study showed that a house 100 feet from an OWF had 14 times the levels of PM 2.5 as houses not near an outdoor wood furnace and 9 times the levels of the EPA air standards.

A house 120 feet from an OWF had over 8 times the levels of PM 2.5 as the houses not near an outdoor wood furnace, and 6 times the levels of the EPA air standards.

A house 240 feet from OWF had 12 times the levels of PM 2.5 as the houses not near an outdoor wood furnace and 8 times the levels of the EPA air standards.

And a house as far away as 850 feet from OWF had 6 times the levels of PM 2.5 as the houses not near an outdoor wood furnace and 4 times the levels of the EPA air standards.

High levels were present in every 24-hour period tested inside homes neighboring outdoor wood furnaces. All houses tested had particulate exposures well above the EPA ambient air quality standard. Levels of PM 2.5 that exceed the EPA standards are associated with asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) attacks and hospitalizations, and are also associated with increased risk of cardiac attacks.

Particles of wood smoke are so small that windows and doors cannot keep smoke out. A study by the University of Washington, Seattle, showed that 50 to 70 percent of outdoor wood smoke entered homes that were not burning wood.

Because wood smoke particles are so small, they are not filtered out by the nose or the upper respiratory system. Instead, these small particles end up deep in the lungs where they can cause structural damage and chemical changes. Carcinogenic chemicals and wood smoke irritants adhere to the small particles and enter the deep, sensitive regions of the lungs where toxic injury is high.

Public Health Toxicologist David Brown, Sc.D., an expert in wood smoke, says, “Some of the health effects reported to EHHI include awakening at night with coughing, headaches, inability to catch breath, continual sore throats, bronchitis and colds requiring children to stay home from school. In some cases the breathing difficulty has gone into asthma attacks requiring emergency-room treatment. Even episodes of short-term exposures to extreme levels of fine particulates from wood smoke and other sources, for periods as short as two hours, can produce significant adverse health effects.”

Oncologist D. Barry Boyd, MD, says, “In addition to the fine particulate matter, wood smoke contains a number of organic compounds that are potential or recognized carcinogens. Exposure over time may raise the risk not only of chronic lung disease but also of lung cancer. As well, wood smoke interferes with normal lung development in infants and children. It increases children’s risk of lower respiratory infections such as bronchitis and pneumonia. Wood smoke exposure can depress the immune system and damage the layer of cells in the lungs that protect and cleanse the airways.”

Outdoor wood furnaces create emissions different from either fireplaces or indoor wood stoves. The Northeast States for Coordinated Air Use Management (NESCAUM) found that the average fine particle emissions from one OWF are equivalent to the emissions from 22 EPA-certified indoor wood stoves, 205 oil furnaces or as many as 8,000 natural gas furnaces.

The short-term health effects of wood smoke exposures are burning eyes and throat, sinusitis, bronchitis and pneumonia.

The long-term health effects are asthma, COPD, cancer, cardiovascular problems and carbon monoxide poisoning.

Dawn Mays-Hardy of the American Lung Association, New England, says,  “Because wood smoke has many of the same components as cigarette smoke, and because wood smoke emissions from outdoor wood furnaces are so thick and pervasive for all those who live near them, American Lung sees them as dangerous to health.”

President of Environment and Human Health, Inc. Nancy Alderman says, “EHHI has now shown that wood smoke from outdoor wood furnaces enters neighboring houses in high enough amounts to cause serious health impacts to these families. States can no longer ignore this science and should ban outdoor wood furnaces until safer technologies are found.”

EHHI further reports that:

This study investigates how homes are affected by neighboring outdoor wood furnaces, as well as the health implications for the families living inside homes impacted by wood smoke.

In this report, Environment and Human Health, Inc. (EHHI) explains its study, which measured potential wood smoke inhalation by people living in homes in the vicinity of outdoor wood furnaces (OWFs), also known as outdoor wood boilers (OWBs). EHHI’s study monitored levels of PM2.5 and PM0.5 particles in each house for 72 hours.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has shown that PM2.5 and PM0.5 are the most common size particles in wood smoke. PM2.5 and smaller cause the greatest health impacts because they are small enough to go deep inside the lungs, where they can not only damage the lungs, but also pass through into the blood stream, delivering their toxins throughout the body. EHHI’s study was performed over three days, for 72 hours per house, in each house that was monitored. This is the only study of its kind to date.

Key background information about wood smoke:

  • Large amounts of wood smoke, like the plumes from OWFs, cannot be kept out of neighboring houses, even those with tight windows and doors.
  • Wood smoke has many of the same components as cigarette smoke and, therefore, these exposures pose a real health risk for families living in the vicinity of OWFs.
  • Wood smoke is a complex mixture of chemicals and particulates. It contains carbon monoxide and other organic gases, particulate matter, chemicals and some inorganic gases. Some of these compounds are toxic (aldehydes and phenols) and some are known carcinogens (benzopyrene and cresols).
  • Wood smoke contains carbon monoxide (CO) gas, which at low levels can lead to serious health problems for individuals with compromised heart and circulatory conditions. OutdoorWood Furnaces Large amounts of wood smoke, like the plumes from OWFs, cannot be kept out of neighboring houses, even those with tight windows and doors.
  • Particulate matter in wood smoke that is less than 10 microns in diameter finds its way into the alveoli in the lungs. Once in the alveoli, the particulate matter can cause structural and chemical changes, which interfere with oxygen uptake. As well, the toxic compounds and carcinogens enter into the bloodstream by way of the alveoli of the lungs.
  • Episodes of short-term exposures to extreme levels of fine particulates from wood smoke and other sources, for periods as short as two hours, produce significant adverse health effects.
  • Wood smoke interferes with normal lung development in infants and children. The components of smoke increase children’s risk of lower respiratory infections, such as bronchitis and pneumonia. Wood smoke exposure can depress the immune system and damage the layer of cells in the lungs that protects and cleanses the airways.
  • Wood smoke causes coughs, headaches, and eye and throat irritation in otherwise healthy people. For vulnerable populations, such as people with asthma, chronic respiratory disease and those with cardiovascular disease, wood smoke is particularly harmful—even short exposures can prove dangerous.
  • Children and the elderly have the highest sensitivity to wood smoke. However, no age group is without risk for respiratory problems, including asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), that result from breathing wood smoke. The effects are cumulative.
  • The air impact of health exposure to wood smoke is increased two-fold during periods with stagnant air. Under such conditions, the inhaled dose levels of particulates within houses approach the hazardous level found in regulated work sites by OSHA. EHHI found smoke entering houses, every day, at even higher levels. The Dangers to Health from A study by the University of Washington in Seattle showed that 50 to 70 percent of the outdoor levels of wood smoke were entering homes that were not burning wood. The EPA performed a similar study in Boise, Idaho, with similar results.
  • The particulate matter and gases in wood smoke are so small that windows and doors cannot keep them out—even the newer energy-efficient, weather-tight homes cannot keep out wood smoke. This is consistent with reports from people in the EHHI study who say their children awaken in the middle of the night having difficulty breathing.
  • In 2009, the state of Massachusetts commissioned a study on the environmental impacts of burning wood for electricity. That study, conducted by the Manomet Center for Conservation Sciences, has now been released. The Manomet study shows that, per unit, wood releases more climate-damaging gases than coal.

From the Norwich Bulletin:

The battle to ban outdoor wood-burning furnaces is getting hotter as the weather gets colder. Environment and Human Health Inc., a North Haven-based group that unsuccessfully sought a statewide ban on the furnaces earlier this year, on Monday released a report that reiterates its claims that wood smoke is dangerous to human health. The study, titled “The Dangers from Outdoor Wood Furnaces,” said current regulations are “not sufficient” to protect human health.

via Wood furnace regulations not sufficient, foes say – Norwich, CT – Norwich Bulletin.

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  1. we have been trying for 6 years to get our city to create a by-law regarding OWB’s. Now they are willing to do this in 2012 but are grandfathering in existing OWB’s. My neighbour’s OWB is less than 5 feet from my property line and is located a mere 160 feet from my home. I have asthma now and go into paroxysms of coughing which even the inhailers I use don’t help!

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