Compared to adults, children's respiratory tracts more easily absorb the most toxic particles emitted from wood burning.

Children and Wood Smoke Pollution

Children are among the most vulnerable to the harmful effects of particulate air pollution. Children breathe faster and inhale more pollutants in proportion to their body weight than do adults. Their immune systems and organs are still developing.


Particulate pollution has been shown to affect lung function and lung development. Eighty percent of the lungs’ alveoli are formed after birth, and children’s lungs continue to develop through adolescence. During infancy, the developing lung is highly susceptible to damage from environmental pollutants, including those from wood smoke.


There is evidence that the particulates and toxins in wood smoke affect fetal and infant development.Photo of a newborn infant in an incubator.Infant Mortality and Pregnancy Outcomes

It has been shown that a 10μg/m3 increase in ambient PM2.5 is associated with an increase in newborn deaths, especially from respiratory-related causes. Other studies have reached similar conclusions. Researchers in Europe, for example, found that infant mortality rates rise on days with increased particle pollution. They also found no evidence of a threshold level below which risk is not increased.


But the effects of particulate pollution begin before birth. For example, exposure to particulate pollution has been associated with increased risk of preterm birth, even when PM2.5 levels are relatively low. It is also linked to lower birth weight.


Fine particulate pollution, even at ambient levels that are below current regulatory “safe” threshold values, has also been strongly associated with reductions in fetal head growth and size. The documented effects are similar to those that result from smoking during pregnancy.


Recent research also suggests an association with increased exposure to fine particulate matter during pregnancy and an increased risk of stillbirth.


A study in Monroe County, New York, linked ambient wintertime pollution specifically from wood burning (but not from other sources) with an increased risk of the mother developing a hypertensive disorder during late pregnancy.


Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), which are in wood smoke (please see our Toxins page), have been shown to reach placental tissue in several studies. Once in the placenta, they may impair fetal nourishment and growth.


Fine Particle Pollution Affects the Brain and Neurological Development

Evidence also suggests that exposure to fine particulate pollution during pregnancy increases the risk of a child later developing autism.


Photo of children in a classroomThere is growing evidence that particulate pollution that is high in PAHs can lead to impaired neuropsychological development and a lifelong lowered IQ. Wood smoke is particularly high in PAHs.There is also growing evidence that fine particulate pollution, especially with increased levels of PAHs, can lead to impaired neuropsychological development and a lifelong lowered IQ. As we have noted elsewhere, fine particulate pollution from wood smoke is particularly rich in PAHs.


In the developing world, children of women who cook with wood, as opposed to kerosene, have been shown to have lower cognitive performance and less frequent structured play.


Lung Development and Respiratory Health

Research has shown that infants exposed to ultrafine particulate matter (the size range most prevalent in wood smoke) developed genetic defects that caused the production of proteins associated with COPD and steroid-resistant asthma in adults. These genetic defects were linked to structural changes in the lung, airflow limitations, and permanent changes in immune responses.


Wood smoke pollution has been shown to raise the risk of bronchiolitis, a respiratory disorder that is a leading cause of hospitalization in infants, as well as rates of hospitalization for childhood pneumonia and bronchitis.  Studies have also shown that children living in homes with wood stoves are more likely to have severe respiratory symptoms.


For children who already have serious illnesses, wood smoke can be particularly harmful. For example, this study found that primary and secondary aerosol emissions from a newer model wood stove were cytotoxic to, and caused inflammation in, bronchial epithelial cells from both healthy donors and from those with cystic fibrosis, but the emissions were even more cytotoxic to the cells from donors with cystic fibrosis.


Increased Asthma Attacks and Hospital Visitsphoto of a boy receiving oxygen through a mask

Children who are exposed to higher levels of particulate pollution, including from wood smoke, are more likely to develop asthma by age 5.


Asthmatic children who live in neighborhoods with more wood smoke have been shown to have significant decreases in lung function. As this study noted, “wood smoke resembles environmental tobacco smoke, for which numerous studies have shown deleterious effects on the respiratory health of children.”


Several studies in Seattle, where wood burning is a primary source of fine particles, have shown a strong correlation between particulate levels and emergency room visits and hospitalizations for asthma.


Asthma is the leading cause of missed school days and the third leading cause of hospitalizations of children in the US. In 2007 (a year for which data is available), 185 children in the US died from asthma.


A recent study from New Zealand found that smoke pollution from wood stoves is associated with emergency department visits for young children. In New Zealand alone, it was estimated that one less wood stove per hectare could prevent 9,000 emergency department visits annually for children in the first three years of life.


More Ear Infections

Wood smoke pollution exposure has also been associated with increased middle ear infections.



A study found an association between use of a wood stove in the home and childhood brain tumors. Another study found evidence that use of a wood stove in the year before or during pregnancy may increase the chance of a child developing acute lymphoblastic leukemia.


It has also been noted that children, who absorb more of the carcinogenic polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) from wood smoke than adults, due to their size and physiological differences, have a higher lifetime risk of lung cancer from inhaling wood smoke than adults. (For more about wood smoke and cancer, please see our Health Effects and Toxins pages.)


As a society, we no longer think it is acceptable to force children to breathe secondhand tobacco smoke. It’s time to extend this attitude to wood smoke.

See also: Toxins

For more information on wood smoke and health, please follow these links:



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