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Where there’s wood smoke, there’s trouble for lungs

6:08 am November 12th, 2012

As temperatures drop this fall and winter, smoke from homes will increase as people fire up woodstoves and fireplaces to keep warm. And that concerns Puget Sound Air Pollution Control Agency.
Officials with the agency that monitors air quality in Pierce County and the rest of the Puget Sound area note that burning wood can be a cheap way to heat your home if it’s done correctly. But poor burning habits – using wood that hasn’t been dried properly and old, inefficient wood-burning devices – can produces large amounts of health-damaging smoke, which is one of the most serious air pollution problems in Washington.
Fine particles in smoke are so small they can easily get into your lungs. Once there, they can cause heart and breathing problems, and even death. People with asthma and respiratory illnesses, children and older adults are most at risk.
Health studies show that people who heat their homes with wood have more breathing problems than those who don’t. Smoke particles also invade neighboring homes. Research shows that children in wood-burning neighborhoods are more likely to have lung and breathing problems.
Wood smoke leads to about 1,100 deaths and $190 million in added healthcare costs each year in Washington, according to the state Department of Ecology.
DOE and local clean-air agencies use burn bans, education and programs that pay part of the cost of replacing old home-heating devices with new, cleaner-burning ones.
Wood needs to be stored for at least six months and preferably a year to be dry enough to burn well, officials say. Dry wood creates a hotter fire that takes less work and uses wood more efficiently.
Wet or green wood needs more heat to evaporate the higher water content before the wood can burn and give off heat. That means you need to burn nearly twice as much wet wood to generate the kind of heat provided by dry wood. So you spend more money to buy wood, or invest more time and effort to harvest your own.
Here’s how can you get the most out of your wood supply: 
• Split it. The wood will dry best and burn most efficiently if the pieces are 3? to 6 inches in diameter.
• Cover it. Protect the wood from rain and weather. Stack it loosely in layers of alternating directions to allow plenty of air circulation. Store it off the ground so air can circulate underneath.
• Wood that has been split, dried and stored under cover for at least a year usually burns best. Burning undried wood produces more smoke than burning dry wood.
DOE’s Air Quality Program has posted information about using wood for home heating. It includes Washington’s wood stove and pellet stove standards and sits of stoves and fireplaces that meet those standards, ways to reduce wood smoke pollution, videos on how to select a wood stove and how to use it correctly, and a way to register to receive e-mail alerts on burn bans.
Puget Sound Clean Air Agency, which serves Pierce, King, Snohomish and Kitsap counties, can be contacted via its hotline at 800-595-4341 and at pscleanair.org.

Air-quality experts say burning wood for heat can be a health risk if done the wrong way. (Courtesy photo)

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