Burning Issues

Health Effects of Wood Smoke Pollutants

Wood Smoke Pollutant Health Effects looks at current known health effects of each known toxic pollutant in wood smoke. Keep in mind that "the dose is the poison". What may be unnoticed by an adult in the short term may be a dose that is very damaging to a new or unborn baby. What is unnoticed in one individual may damage many other people. The following table as a pdf (size 16 KB). For References for Wood Smoke Tables 1-4 (as pdf)

(Wood Smoke Emissions lists some of the known wood smoke chemicals, with a key for the physical state they are in. The major first portion of the list is from one published study (Larson, 1993), the weight of each of these pollutants per kilogram of wood burned is given. Other species found in other studies are listed as "Additional Wood Smoke Emissions" at the end of Table 1, and are included here for the big picture. Scientists know that there are hundreds, perhaps thousands of compounds, and the compounds are rapidly mixing and changing in the smoke itself. A new paper "Chemical Characterization of Fine Particle Emissions from Fireplace Combustion of Wood Grown in the Northeastern United States" (Fine, 2001) lists several hundred more chemicals. We are not including them in our list but provide the reference and abstract for those interested in further research.)

Table 3: Wood Smoke Pollutant Health Effects

Wood Smoke Pollutant

Health effect
Carbon Monoxide1 Poison: resulting change of oxyhemaglobin carboxyhemoglobin. Tissue hypoxia, cellular death, damages to the central nervous system, death. 14 Causes reproductive toxity.15 Reduces ability of blood to bring oxygen to body cells and tissues; cells and tissues need oxygen to work. May be particularly hazardous to people who have heart or circulatory (blood vessel) problems and people who have damaged lungs or breathing passages.11
VOCs (C2-C7)1 Volatile Organic Compounds cause serious health problems such as cancer and other effects. All VOCs contain carbon. They can cause serious human illness. Hazardous. Causes ozone. Ozone causes breathing problems, reduced lung function, asthma, irritates eyes, stuffy nose, reduced resistance to colds and other infections, may speed up aging of lung tissues. Causes fatigue, generalized depression, increased lethargy or sleep, headaches, substernal pressure, generalized aches and accelerated cardiac action.17 Environmental Effects - ozone can damage plants and trees; smog can cause reduced visibility
Aldehydes 1  
Formaldehyde1 The gas is toxic if inhaled or absorbed through the skin and is carcinogenic. 14 Can Harm Plants.11
Acrolein 1 Toxic, Bronchopneumonia, aveolitis, swelling and hemorraging of tiny vessels.16
Propionaldehyde1 Toxic 11
Acetaldehyde1 Toxic 11 , degeneration of olfactory epithelium, liver lesions, nasal cancer, growth retardation.16
Furfural1 Irritates mucous membranes, causes headaches and photosensitivity and affects sugar metabolism. 14
Substituted Furans1  
Benzene1 Colorless volatile liquid. Harmful by transdermal absorption and acutely toxic by ingestion or inhalation, causing mucous membrane irritation, neurological symptoms, and death due to respiratory failure; chronic exposure may result in bone marrow depression and anemia. 14 Causes reproductive toxicity.15
Alkyl Benzenes 1  
Toluene1 Toulene is a well known addictive substance. (Glue sniffing) It gives feelings of intoxication. Causes sleepiness, dizziness, headache, muscular weakness, confusion, impaired co-ordination, and visual impairment. It is neurotoxic causing neurobehaivioral changes. Causes changes in Liver and kidneys, erosion of the nose, degeneration of respiratory tract skin. Chronic abuse causes damage to the brain in the cerebral area and causes brain stem atrophy.16 Causes reproductive toxity.15 Accumulates in blood and subcutaneous fat if insufficient clearance time between exposures. Irritates eyes and upper respiratory tract. Toulene intereacts with other human exposures such as alcohol ingestion. Pattern recognition is disturbed, by both Alcohol and Toulene. Toulene effects accuracy more than Alcohol. Toulene combined with Alcohol caused performance and mood to decline more than for either one separately.
Acetic Acid1 Irritant
Formic Acid1 More irritating than acetic acid. Dangerously caustic to the skin. 14
Nitrogen Oxides (NO,NO2)1 Lung damage. Illnesses of breathing passages and lungs (respiratory system). Acid aerosol which damages trees and lakes. 11
Sulfur Dioxide1 Insecticide. Breathing problems, may cause permanent damage to lungs. Environmental effects - SO2 is an ingredient in acid rain (acid aerosols), which can damage trees and lakes. Acid aerosols can also reduce visibility.
Methyl chloride1 Toxic 11
Napthalene1 Toxic 11, Carcinogenic. Acts like alcohol. 14
Substituted Napthalenes 1 Toxic 11
Oxygenated Monoaromatics 1  
Guaiacol (and derivatives)1  
Phenol (and derivatives)1 Poison: colic, seizures, cardiac arrhythmias, shock, respiratory arrest. 14 Toxic 11, tremors, lower fetal body weight, possible skin carcinogen, EPA Inhalation data insufficient.16.
Syringol (and derivatives)1  
Catechol (and derivatives1 Toxic 11
Total Particle Mass 1  
Particulate Organic Carbon1 Toxic 11
Oxygenated PAHs 1  
PAHs1 Toxic 12
Phenanthrene1 Also in coal. It is toxic and carcinogenic.
Anthracene1 Toxic 12
Methylanthracenes 1  
Fluoranthene1 Toxic 12
Pyrene 1 Toxic 12
Benzo(a)anthracene1 Toxic 12, probable human carcinogen. DNA damage and Gene mutation in mammalian cell cultures.16
Chrysene1 Toxic 12
Benzofluoranthenes1 Toxic 12
Benzo(e)pyrene1 Toxic 12
Benzo(a)pyrene1 Toxic 12, Highly carcinogenic.
Perylene 1  
Ideno(1,2,3-cd)pyrene1 Toxic 12
Dibenzo(a,h)pyrene1 Toxic 15



Trace Elements1  
Strontium 1 Bone loss, calcification of cartilage. No EPA inhalation data exist.
Aluminum 1 Excessive amounts in bloodstream may lead to neurological symptoms that can be fatal. Fumes may cause pulmonary fibrosis. 14
Vanadium1 Absorption via lungs; symptoms include irritation of the respiratory tract, pneumonitis, conjunctivitis, and anemia.
Chromium1 Toxic 11, 12
Manganese1 Concentrates in mitocondria. Activates enzymes.14 Acts on the Central Nervous System. Impairment of neurobehaivior function: slowed visual reaction time, erratic fine hand, and forearm movement, finger tremor, affects audio verbal short term memory. Causes fatigue, tinnitus, irritability, and more coughs and acute bronchitis.16, Central nervous system is the primary target. Lodges in lung, providing a pool of slowly released manganese that eventually penetrated the brain. Half-life in the brain of about one year, concentrating in the basal ganglia, which are the brain structures critical for movement. Even modest levels are cumulative.17
Nickle1 Toxic 11, 12,15
Copper1 Toxic 12
Zinc1 Toxic 12 Poison. Fever, vomiting, chills, myalgia, headache and pneumonitis. Looks like lead poisoning. 14
Lead1 Poisoning = Loss of appetite, weight loss, colic, constipation, insomnia, headache, dizziness, irritability, moderate hypertension, albuminuria, anemia, a blue line at the edge of the gums, encephalopathy especially in children) and peripheral neuropath leading to paralysis.14 Causes reproductive toxity.15 Toxic 11, 12. Health Effects - brain and other nervous system damage; children are at special risk. Some lead-containing chemicals cause cancer in animals. Lead causes digestive and other health problems. Environmental Effects - Lead can harm wildlife.11
Particulate Elemental Carbon1  
Normal alkanes1  

Cyclic di-and

triterpenoids 1

Dehydroabietic acid1  
Chlorinated Dioxins 1 Toxic12,15 Wasting syndrome, fetal abnormalities or death, and problems with the immune and endocrine systems in humans, Mammals, in fish and in birds.
Particulate Acidity1  
Additional wood smoke emmissions found in other studies  
Cresol3 Toxic & corrosive 14,11,15
Isopimaric acid -
Ethylbenzene3 Toxic11 Causes changes in human blood.16
Arsenic4 Toxic11,12 Causess skin eruptions, vomitting, diarrhea, abdominal pain, muscular cramps, and swelling of eyelids, feet, and hands. Chronic arsenic poisoning pigmentation of the skin accompanied by scaling, hyperkeratosis of the palms and soles, transverse white lines on the fingernails, headache, peripheral neuropathy and confusion. 14 Causes reproductive toxity.15
Cesium Metallic14
Cadmium4 Poison Pneumoniosus14. Causes reproductive toxity.15 Toxic11,12 Affects memory, attention concentration and joint pain.16
Molybdenum5 Poison, electron redox transport in the body.14
Selenium5 Cirrhosis, anemia, loss of hair, erosions of long bones. 14
Carbozole Toxic15
Barium Poison, acid soluble salt14
Phosphorus Poison toothache, mandibular necrosis, anorexia, anemia. 14 Toxic11
Phenathrene A PAH, Toxic and carcinogenic. Also in coal tar.


acenapthylene Toxic, probable human carcinogen. Possible liver changes, vascular disorder, and Central Nervous System effects. More toxic than Napthyene.16
nitronaphthalene Vapor may cause blistering and opacity of the cornea14.


3-methylcholanthrene A PAH, pro carcinogen , highly carcinogenic, requires metabolic acceleration. Widely used in studies of carcinogenisis. 14
acenapthene Toxic11 probable human carcinogen. Possible liver changes, vascular disorder, and Central Nervous System effects. More toxic than Napthyene.16
Indeno (1,2,3,c,d,) pyrene Probable human carcinogen.16
Thermoactinomyces vulgaris13 P 962. Farmers lung" = Breathlessness with dry cough, loss of appetite, weight loss. 14
Aspergillus fumigatus13 "Malt workers lung" = allergic aveolitis14
Cladosporium herbarium13 Possible central nervous system - abscesses & meningitis 14
Penicillium sp mixture13 "Cheese handlers lung" 14
Micropolyspora faeni13 Grows best at high temperatures. Bacteria occurring in branching filaments and forming a spore-producing mycelium. Principle cause of farmers lung.14
Alternaria tenius13 Plant disease. Diseases of the lungs and in skin infection in man also a common allergen in human bronchial asthma.14
Additional pollutants from Open Burning, Forest Fires, Brush Burning  
Poison Oak Poison14
Poison Sumac Poison14
Poison Ivy Poison14
Bracken Poison14
Compiled by Mary J. Rozenberg, 2001


"Secondhand wood smoke has a similar composition to coke oven emissions, and

causes a variety of diseases ranging from heart disease, to stroke, to lung, bladder,

and breast cancer. (Jim Repace, 5/2001) "






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