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In November 2011, the Lowell Center for Sustainable Production hosted a science policy symposium on the public health implications of using wood biomass to provide heat and power for industries, commercial enterprises, institutions, and the electricity grid.

Symposium Accomplishments

  • Considered the most current scientific information about the health effects of the emissions from non-residential wood combustion units.
  • Recommended policy and program changes that hold promise for enhancing public health protections.

Who Was Involved

The participants included senior staff and officials from state and federal health, environment, education, forestry, and energy agencies across the Northeast, as well as scientists, health professionals and representatives of advocacy organizations and the biomass industry.

Key Conclusions

Burning wood produces hazardous compounds.

Increasing use of wood combustion as a source of heat and power poses risks to human health. Potential health impacts on children from the use of wood boilers in schools are of particular concern.

Existing state-of-the-art technologies can dramatically reduce emissions.

Emissions from non-residential wood combustion vary widely, depending on a range of factors that are difficult to control. However, state-of-the-art boiler design and emission controls can substantially reduce levels of pollutants.

Public policies do not promote the cleanest technologies.

Public policy incentivizes the burning of wood biomass as an alternative energy strategy, but does not distinguish between state-of-the-art boilers that can meet the strictest global standards versus higher emission technologies that are more widely available.

Gaps in regulation of wood biomass combustion should be filled.

Wood biomass boilers are not scrutinized sufficiently or consistently in many states to ensure protection of public health. Neither federal nor state regulations consider risks of peak exposures of fine particulates when high levels are released over short periods of time, nor do they routinely take into account the susceptibility of local populations during air permit processes.

Collaborative action is needed.

Sectors, government agencies, and states in the Northeast can collaborate to protect public health as wood biomass burning proliferates. Leadership by public and private parties should:

  • Engage the public and prioritize public health in energy decision-making.
  • Advance understanding of risks and better protect susceptible populations.
  • Incentivize only the cleanest-burning wood boilers available.
  • Establish consistent and health-protective regulations for boilers across the Northeast states.

Priority action steps to implement these recommendations are described in Wood Biomass for Heat and Power: Addressing Public Health Impacts, available below. It comprehensively summarizes the information provided and discussions held at the Symposium.

Report and Presentations

Symposium Report Executive Summary

Full Symposium Report

Presenters' Slides

Deep Appreciation for Our Collaborators

The following organizations provided people to serve on the Symposium planning committee, helped identify participants, and assisted with outreach.

  • American Lung Association
  • Asthma Regional Council of New England
  • Boston University School of Public Health
  • Environment and Human Health, Inc.
  • Massachusetts Medical Society
  • New England College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine
  • Northeast States for Coordinated Air Use Management
  • New York State Energy Research & Development Authority (NYSERDA)
  • University of British Columbia
  • US Department of Health and Human Services, Region 1 (New England)
  • Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation

NYSERDA and the Heinz Endowments generously provided funding to support the costs of preparing for and convening the Symposium.

The Lowell Center is grateful to all of these organizations for their commitment to examining links between human health and exposure to woodsmoke, and potential solutions. We look forward to continuing to work with participants and their colleagues on implementation of the recommendations that emerged from the Symposium.

UML