Wood fires and breathing problems

Smoke from slow-combustion stoves, wood fires, burn offs and bushfires can cause breathing problems.  Wood fire smoke can pollute the air with carbon monoxide – an invisible, odourless and tasteless gas that, once ingested, can cause confusion, headaches, fatigue, damage to the heart and brain, and death. Particles in wood fire smoke can irritate the eyes, throat, nose and respiratory system.

Wood smoke may also contain carcinogenic pollutants like benzene, butadiene, formaldehyde and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. Exposure to these gases can severely hinder healthy development and damage the respiratory, nervous, reproductive and immune systems.

The effects of wood smoke exposure are typically short-term, with most healthy adults recovering quickly. However, pregnant women, children, elderly persons and individuals with a diagnosis or history of heart disease, lung conditions, diabetes and high blood pressure, are particularly susceptible to smoke-induced breathing problems.

Exposure to wood smoke can occur:

Inside the home: wood heater, slow combustion stoves and outdoor smoke entering the house.

Outdoors: outdoor fires, burn-offs, crop stubble burns and bushfires.

Things to consider if you use a wood heater or wood stove:

  • Operate it correctly and clean the flue or chimney regularly to minimise the amount of smoke produced.
  • Only use good quality wood – make sure the wood is dry and has no paint on it or other chemical treatments such as treated pine. Try to use smaller logs rather than one large log.
  • Leave a window partially open to let in the fresh air and reduce the build-up of indoor pollution.
  • Maintain a bright flame and never let your heater smoulder to ensure enough heat for complete combustion.
  • Clean your chimney annually.
  • Be aware of signs like drowsiness, an indication that carbon monoxide levels are high.

To find out more about woodfire smoke and breathing problems visit Better Health Channel

Fast facts:

  • Wood fire smoke contains particles that can harm your health.
  • Wood smoke exposure can occur inside and outside the home.
  • Operate and maintain wood heaters and wood-burning ovens properly to minimise the amount of smoke generated.
  • Wear properly fitting P2 dust masks if burning crop stubble. These are available in our Safety shop

References used for this topic

More information:

Australian Government Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities
Woodheaters and Woodsmoke – air quality

Better Health Channel
Wood fires and breathing problems

Tips to reduce wood heater pollution (2019)

EPA (South Australia) 2018
Burn Better for Good

Research & reviews:

European Respiratory Journal
Wood smoke exposure and risk of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease [PDF 194kb]

Environmental Toxicology and Pharmacology (2017)
Wildfire Smoke Exposure and Human Health: Significant Gaps in Research for a Growing Public Health Issue