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Q Is burning firewood really that bad for the environment?

A It depends. It's bad for the environment if you chop down old-growth trees in the woods behind your house and then burn them in a regular fireplace. It's all right to burn firewood every now and then if it comes from a sustainably managed forest or from trees knocked down by storms, and if you have a modern wood stove with a catalytic converter or have installed a catalytic converter in your traditional fireplace. The smoke from burning firewood contains ugly stuff: nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide, volatile organic compounds, and particulate matter. An Environmental Protection Agency study surprisingly revealed that wood smoke has 12 times the cancer-causing potential of an equal volume of cigarette smoke. So it's a bad idea to rely on wood for your winter heating needs. But if you crave the occasional crackling fire, buy an EPA-certified wood stove or fireplace insert that has air flow controls to ensure that particulate matter and harmful gases are more completely combusted, and have it checked several times a year. Smoke that backs up into the house can trigger asthma attacks, and over time, cancer. For a list of EPA-certified products, visit

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Illustration: Mark Matcho

OnEarth. Winter 2005
Copyright 2004 by the Natural Resources Defense Council