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USM Faculty and Students Research Indoor Air Quality in Homes Burning Wood

With the increased usage of wood stoves and furnaces in Maine households, no one has the time to question if there are any health dangers or risks to consider. When it comes time to clean the stove, however, these dangers and risks might be all too real.

Last spring, a team of faculty and student researchers from the University of Southern Maine began groundbreaking research about the potential dangers of indoor air toxicity and pollution created by ash from wood and pellet stoves in Maine homes. The team’s research and findings are some of the first in this area of study. 

The research was funded through a grant from the University of Southern Maine/Maine Center for Toxicology and Environmental Health Maine Economic Fund Area Development Award. Principle investigators Daniel Martinez, research scientist for environmental science, and Joseph Staples, assistant professor of environmental science, worked closely with four undergraduate student researchers to conduct multiple analyses on interior airborne smoke and ash particles from cord wood, wood pellets and Biobricks®. As part of an ongoing project, the researchers will create interior air samplings and analysis methods that will be accessible to any homeowner with a wood or pellet stove and tips and guidelines for safe stove practices.

Preliminary findings show that traces of at least 10 heavy metals were found in wood and pellet ash, including copper, arsenic and lead. Staples says the exact numbers are difficult to qualify because almost no research has been done in this area. “What we do know is that heavy metals in high concentrations are obviously not good,” says Staples. The researchers found that most of the exposure occurs while cleaning out the stove because the ash is stirred up and then inhaled into the body. 

As part of the project, the team has been participating in outreach initiatives in an effort to inform citizens about safe practices when using and cleaning a wood stove.  They presented their findings at the Maine Indoor Air Quality Conference in August and distributed an online survey to assess wood stove use and clean up practices in Maine. Future plans include developing air quality sampling methods that will be available to the public.

According to Staples, one of the main objectives of this research project was to provide unique research opportunities to USM undergraduate students. The four students presented at USM’s Thinking Matters symposium last April, and also presented at the University of Maine System’s State House Undergraduate Research Day in May.

The four students are Kaitlyn Bennett, environmental science planning and policy junior from Wells; Joy Grannis, environmental policy and planning senior from Pembroke; Jamie Grindle, environmental science sophomore from Saco; and Hannah Shute, environmental science junior from Yarmouth.

For more information about the study, please contact Joe Staples, assistant professor of environmental science, at 780-5552 or jstaples@usm.maine.edu.