Safety and first aid

Health effects of wood smoke

What is wood smoke?

Wood smoke is a complex mix of chemicals and particles, including:

  • fine and coarse particles
  • carbon monoxide
  • sulphur dioxide
  • nitrogen oxides
  • volatile organic compounds (VOCs).

Terms explained

Particles – tiny solid and liquid substances that can float in the air. Many particles are invisible.

Where does wood smoke come from?

Residential wood smoke is produced from wood heaters, open fire places and back yard burning. Wood-fired pizza ovens and chimineas can also be a source of smoke.

Up to 70 per cent of wood smoke can be retained in your home and may affect your health if your indoor wood burning appliance is poorly maintained.

Wood smoke and your health

Wood smoke affects the quality of both indoor and outdoor air.

It is made up of coarse and fine particles. Coarse particles can include soot, dust and pollen. When breathed in these particles settle in the lungs and narrow airways.

Fine dust particles, such as smoke, are more likely to settle more deeply into the lungs while ultrafine particles can be absorbed into the blood stream.

The majority of the particles in wood smoke are fine particles, which are linked to the most harmful health effects.

Fine and coarse particles both contribute to several health problems:

Short term effects

  • irritation of the eyes, throat and nose
  • coughing
  • difficulty breathing
  • aggravated asthma.

Long term effects

  • decreased lung function
  • development of chronic bronchitis
  • cardiovascular effects.

Who is at risk?

Some members of the community are more sensitive to wood smoke and are more likely to develop health problems or experience worsening of existing health problems. These include:

  • elderly people
  • young children
  • people with respiratory diseases like asthma, bronchitis and pneumonia
  • people with cardiovascular disease.

What can be done?

There are steps you can take to decrease the health effects of wood smoke.

Choosing your wood

  • Only use well-seasoned hardwoods.
  • Do not use stained, treated or painted wood.
  • Chop your wood into smaller pieces.
  • Store your wood loosely stacked and covered in a well-aired place.

Building a fire

  • Use plenty of kindling and paper to establish a good fire quickly.
  • Use smaller logs to get the fire started and larger logs for slower burning.
  • Stack your fire so there is 2cm between each log. This allows air to get into the hot area of the fire.
  • Do not over fill the heater or fire place.

Wood heaters and fireplaces

  • Ensure there is enough air circulation in your wood heater by adjusting the air intake or flue.
  • Check your wood heater and chimney regularly to ensure no smoke is being produced.

Alternatives

If you have an old wood heater, consider buying a low emissions wood heater that meets Australian/New Zealand Standard 4013:1999. You can check this by looking for the wood heater compliance plate on the back of the heater.

Switch to gas or electric appliances for your winter heating.

Back yard burning of household waste is completely banned by some local governments. Contact your local council to find out about backyard burning.

More information

For more information on pollution and wood heater compliance visit the Department of Fire and Emergency Services (external site) website.

In the event of a smoking nuisance in your neighbourhood, communication with your neighbour is the first step. If this fails, raise the issue with your local council. Most councils employ environmental health officers who can investigate smoke complaints.

Remember

  • Wood smoke can have serious health effects, especially for young children and the elderly.
  • There are several steps you can take to decrease the amount of wood smoke you create.

Acknowledgements
Public Health

This publication is provided for education and information purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical care. Information about a therapy, service, product or treatment does not imply endorsement and is not intended to replace advice from your healthcare professional. Readers should note that over time currency and completeness of the information may change. All users should seek advice from a qualified healthcare professional for a diagnosis and answers to their medical questions.

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