On cold, snowy nights, many Mainers light the wood stove or the fireplace to beat the chill and enjoy the flickering ambience of an open flame.

But that treasured tradition comes at a cost, according to the American Lung Association. Smoke from wood-burning stoves and fireplaces contains harmful gases and tiny particles that, when breathed in, can aggravate and contribute to a host of health problems, including premature death, said Janice Nolen, assistant vice president for national policy at the lung association.

“They can take months to years off people’s lives,” she said. “They cause heart attacks and stroke, they worsen lung diseases like asthma and COPD.”

In Maine, where one in 10 adults has asthma, one of the highest rates in the country, warnings about the health effects of wood smoke haven’t widely taken hold. Four in 10 homes in Maine heat with wood, including many households with residents who have asthma or another chronic lung or heart condition, according to a November 2008 Maine residential heat and energy survey.

Most of those wood stoves are at least a decade old and inefficient. One dated wood stove can emit as much air pollution as five old diesel trucks, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Harmful particulates in wood smoke are so tiny that they evade the body’s natural filters in the nose and upper respiratory system, lodging deep in the lungs. Wood smoke also contains carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxide, and carcinogens such as benzene and formaldehyde, Nolen said.

“People don’t always think about wood smoke having something like formaldehyde coming out of it, which they wouldn’t want in their homes, or benzene, but it does,” she said.

In October, the American Lung Association partnered with several other health and environmental groups to sue the U.S. EPA, claiming the agency failed to update emissions standards for new wood-burning boilers and furnaces. The EPA last set those standards in 1988.

“There’s a whole array of pollutants that we now understand far better than we did in 1988, and we’ve had enough analysis to know that they do indeed come from wood smoke,” Nolen said.

The EPA has now proposed new rules for the amount of air pollution that can be emitted by wood stoves and other residential wood heaters, with a public hearing scheduled for Feb. 26 in Boston. The proposed standards would make wood stoves and heaters an estimated 80 percent cleaner than those manufactured today.

The planned regulations would affect only new wood stoves and heaters, not those already in use in homes or currently sold in stores.

The push for cleaner wood stoves isn’t an attempt to ban their use, but to encourage consumers to adopt cleaner and more efficient models that produce more heat with less wood, Nolen said.

“It’s an effort to bring generationally old standards up to what the rest of the world is doing and provide more efficient and cleaner heat for the folks who need to or want to use wood,” she said.

Even newer models emit pollution from wood burning, Nolen said, encouraging anyone concerned about the health effects to consider heating with natural gas. Children with developing lungs are especially at risk, she said.

While some people prefer to burn wood, a renewable resource, rather than depend on oil, they may not realize they’re putting their health, and the health of their neighbors, in danger, she said.

“In many communities this is contributing to a significant air pollution problem,” Nolen said.

Jackie Farwell

I'm the health editor for the Bangor Daily News, a Bangor native, a UMaine grad, and a weekend crossword warrior. I never get sick of writing about Maine people, geeking out over health care data, and...