Cleaner burning wood heaters proposed

The Environmental Protection Agency has proposed new emission standards for wood stoves and other residential wood heaters. (Amy Davis / January 3, 2014)

The Environmental Protection Agency moved Friday to reduce harmful air pollution from woodstoves and heaters, proposing to phase in tighter emission standards for new units.

The announcement was welcomed by Maryland environmental officials, who had joined in October with their counterparts in New York and five other states to sue the agency for failing to adequately protect the public from emissions from residential wood heaters.

"Enough was enough," said Angelo Bianca, deputy air management director for the Maryland Department of the Environment.  EPA had not updated regulations for wood heaters since 1988, he noted. But the standards EPA has proposed will go beyond what Maryland has done on its own to limit pollution from outdoor wood heaters, he said.

Smoke from woodstoves and other residential wood heaters can increase toxic air pollution, carbon monoxide and soot or particle pollution enough to cause health problems, including heart attacks, strokes and asthma. In some areas, such as New England, residential wood heat is a significant source of harmful pollutants.

Frank O'Donnell of Clean Air Watch in Washington called EPA's announcement a "very important step" toward protecting people's health.

"Smoke gets in your eyes, as the old song goes," O'Donnell said. "But wood smoke also gets in your lungs, where it can cause real damage."

In Maryland, residential wood heating remains a relatively small but significant source of harmful air pollutants, according to Bianca, particularly in rural areas.  Wood heat is growing in the state, though, according to industry supporters, with more than 190,000 woodstoves and 13,000 pellet stoves in homes.

EPA is proposing to phase in tighter emission limits on new woodstoves, fireplace inserts, indoor and outdoor wood boilers (also called hydronic heaters), forced air furnaces and masonry heaters. Fireplaces, fire pits, pizza ovens, barbecues and chimineas would be exempt.

Stoves and heaters already in homes, and those for sale now, also would not be affected. The standards on new heaters wouldn't begin to take effect until 2015, giving manufacturers time to adjust.

For more on the proposal, go here.