With the rising price of oil and gas heat prompting many Mainers to burn wood instead, a team of University of Southern Maine undergraduates and researchers are studying the environmental effects of the byproducts wood-burning stoves put into indoor atmospheres.
“The real issue here is not so much that anything we’re doing here is particularly new, but really it highlights the capabilities of these students,” said Joseph Staples, a lecturer in the Environmental Sciences Department. “Once again we see something extraordinary happening here at USM.”
The team is making use of a $25,000 grant that the Maine Economic Improvement Fund awarded to the Department of Environmental Studies.
Environmental science majors Hannah Shute, Kaitlyn Bennett and Joy Grannis contributed to the research, with Shute and Grannis focusing on the toxicity of wood ash and Bennet focusing on analyzing ash particles. None of the students could be reached for comments.
“The research was to study the size, distribution and morpohology — the shape — of particles during the process of combustion,” said Assistant Research Professor Daniel Martinez, who is leading the project. “What we found that we had not thought about was that smaller particles could potentially be more toxic because they have a larger surface area.”
One of the major goals of the project, said Martinez, is to create a machine that can sample indoor air quality. The prototype used for the research is an airless gas tank with a cracked seal that sucks in particles in the air, which are then deposited on sample paper for further study and photographing with a scanning electron microscope.
Martinez said the team hopes to take the time to develop a design for the machine while their research findings are subject to a peer review process.
Staples researches the actual ash put out by stoves, with a particular focus on toxic metals in the ash. Arsenic occurs naturally in some sources of water and can be sucked into trees through their root systems.
“We found what’s been known for a long time — that wood ash contains metal. But most living things have some metal in them,” Staples said. “What happens is when you go to clean out your wood stove or pellet stove some of these really fine particles can get airborne, and you can inhale them, and they get deep into the lungs along with anything they’re carrying with them.”
Staples said an easy precaution to take is to wear a mask when cleaning out wood stoves.