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The downsides to burning wood: Firewood and smoke

January 12, 2018 11:33 am Updated: January 12, 2018 11:34 am

You know it has been a rough winter already when an above-30 degree day feels like a heat wave and you want to put shorts on and run around the backyard!

Last week, I wrote about the burning characteristics of certain types of firewood. I may have put a rather romantic spin on this practice. This week, I will add to the topic with some of my own experiences that may offer a different bit of perspective.

I bought my first woodstove in 1973 when OPEC (Organization of Oil Exporting Countries) severely restricted sales of Middle Eastern oil to the United States. At that time, the US was importing nearly 90 percent of its oil from Arab nations in the Middle East. This embargo was in response to the Yom Kippur war between Egypt and Israel in which the US sided with Israel.

The immediate response was a huge price increase and shortage of gasoline, home heating oil and other petroleum products. I was working at a gas station in Catskill at the time and the trauma of dealing with some seriously angry people demanding more than the $3 worth of gas my boss decided to limit sales to was a horrible experience. The price of fuel oil quadrupled to $1.40 a gallon from 35 cents and I could not afford to heat my house.

I bought a $200 Ashley woodstove, installed it myself and began to burn firewood. I could not afford a chainsaw, so I started out trying to cut all the wood I needed by hand with a bow saw. It was a formidable task that soon proved to be almost impossible.

Since I owned an old pickup truck at the time, I teamed up with a friend who owned a chainsaw and we began to cut and sell firewood. I previously thought my first “career” as a farrier was the hardest work imaginable, but I learned that making firewood was equally demanding.

Nevertheless, burning wood seemed like a very patriotic thing to do at the time, and even after the embargo ended, the price of oil remained sky-high, so I continued to use wood as my primary home heating fuel from 1973 until 2014 — more than 40 years.

I took great pleasure in being self-sufficient and not have to rely on “fossil fuel” as my friend Lester referred to oil or gas.

In retrospect, it was probably not a good choice. Although I enjoyed the challenge and the physical exercise that making firewood involved, today I wonder about the effects on my lungs and heart of breathing wood and smoke fumes for all those years.

I told myself I was saving huge amounts of money every winter, but when I consider the actual true costs of wood burning, I am not so sure now. My original woodstove cost about $300 all told with the chimney pipe, but it was an unsafe hookup and I was lucky on more than one occasion to have survived a chimney fire.

Many other local people were not so fortunate. It seemed almost every really cold night, there was a chimney fire somewhere local and many, many people lost their homes. There was practically an epidemic of woodstove-caused fires throughout our region.

One of the first projects I did when I was hired by Cornell Cooperative Extension in 1976, was to produce an educational video titled “Burning Wood Safely.” I like to think that amateurish video may have been the most important thing I did in my career.

Since I have lived in very rural areas all these past years, I was never concerned about the effects on my health of breathing the fumes of wood smoke from other people’s stoves, but today in suburban areas, there is a serious issue from wood burning.

Today, in some suburban communities, the smell and fumes of wood smoke present a serious hazard to people’s health. Of course, the risk of chimney fires remains, but the long-term consequences of breathing smoke may be even more deadly.

What seems to make sense in one situation, as in my case in rural Durham, may be a very bad idea elsewhere, such as the suburbs of Kingston. I certainly am not a fan of regulations in general, but I would favor restrictions on using woodstoves in more densely populated areas where too many people are subjected to the pollution caused by wood smoke.

As a society, we have gone to great lengths to protect our citizens, particularly our children, from the hazards of secondhand smoke, yet I have seen kids waiting for the school bus breathing air that is seriously contaminated by wood smoke. If you are considering purchasing a woodstove and you live in a suburban area, think twice about it. Please.

Reach Bob Beyfuss at rlb14@cornell.edu.

Comments
As good points as Bob makes, I'm sure he'd also agree that some who use their wood stoves to burn other materials as a means of illegal disposal, are putting more than their own health at risk by so doing. Depending on the material several toxic materials including the dread dioxin can be airborne.