If you've walked around a neighbourhood when people have their fireplaces going, you've probably noticed that woodsy scent wafting through the air. Some would even find that a soothing, pleasant smell. You may be surprised to learn that the smoke from a wood stove, a wood burning fireplace, or an open campfire, is not at all good for you. In fact, in some countries, like the U.K., wood-burning produces more than double the air pollution that results from traffic exhaust. In India, almost 20% of its deaths in a year are caused by air pollution and much of that pollution is from burning wood to cook food and heat homes.
We have probably all heard the argument that wood is a renewable energy source and is therefore better than using fossil fuels. While this argument carries some weight, on a closer look, the negative environmental and health consequences of wood burning are often not being properly considered. In some residential areas located in valleys, where surrounding mountains keep the air still, residential wood burning can cause significant health problems. Recognizing this problem, Sunpeaks Ski Resort in the Rocky Mountains, west of Calgary, banned wood stoves in any new construction in 1996.
One night while strolling around my own neighbourhood in Kanata, I noticed that familiar smell of woodburning. I took out my Air Quality Egg to measure the level of particle emissions, or PM2.5, and found readings of between 36 and 37 — far above the safe levels for that air pollutant (over 10 can be a concern and over 25 can be dangerous on a daily basis). Just to see if our house was being affected, I checked its indoor particle emissions, and though not as bad, it was still not good, reading at 19. Typically inside our house, the PM2.5 readings are 2 or less. So my neighbour(s), probably for decorative reasons more than actual home heating (an open fireplace probably loses more heat up the chimney than it provides back into the living space), are likely unknowingly polluting themselves and their local area during those times.
What's the bottom line on wood burning stoves and fireplaces? Some of the newer models are more efficient and less polluting, but with the polluting smoke produced, they are certainly not good for you or anyone else nearby. There are alternatives.
For further information, here are links to a useful article and a scientific report on the subject: