Beware the Hazards of Wood Smoke

Family and friends relaxing in front of a roaring wood burning fireplace. It makes a beautiful picture, but most people fail to see the dangers that lurk beyond that peaceful scene. There are many reasons why people burn wood. Some people just want to enjoy the relaxing atmosphere, while other people burn wood to supply additional heat to their homes. Little do they know that the atmosphere and heat they are enjoying could actually be harming the health of their families and innocent neighbors and destroying the air quality in the environment. Here are some facts that you may not know about burning wood.

Everybody knows that when you burn wood you create smoke. While most people would agree that it is an irritating inconvenience they question whether wood smoke is really “that dangerous”. While the composition of wood smoke can vary depending on the type of wood being burned, generally speaking it will contain more than 100 different chemical compounds. Among these compounds you will find a large number of toxins and carcinogens including carbon monoxide, formaldehyde, dioxin and arsenic. The health hazards caused by cigarette smoking and second hand smoke have been broadcast for years and many public areas are now designated as smoke free to protect the health of the public. A fact that may surprise you is that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has estimated that wood smoke is 12 times more carcinogenic than cigarette smoke and can attack the lungs and cells of the body up to 40 times longer. To simplify this in an example, a single fireplace that burns 10 pounds of wood during a single hour (which is a reasonable burn time) will produce 4,300 times more airborne carcinogens than 30 cigarettes.

The greatest health threat wood fires produce is the fine particulate matter in the smoke. Wood burning produces tiny particles of matter to which the chemicals and toxins attach. This dangerously small particulate matter is able to penetrate deep into the lungs where it is nearly impossible to cough up and toxins and carcinogens are able to pass directly into the blood stream. Once in the blood stream these toxins and carcinogens begin to attack the cells and organs. While it is true that most smoke is vented out through the chimney, a significant amount of the fine particulates remain inside the home. Also the smoke vented out through the chimney releases the fine particulate matter, toxins and carcinogens into the environment where they can remain airborne for up to 3 weeks and can infiltrate your neighbor’s home even through high efficiency doors and windows. Fireplaces and wood stoves are estimated to cause about 35% of fine particle pollution, the most dangerous form of air pollution, in the United States as a whole. Chimney emissions are basically an extreme version of second hand smoke. In many communities where wood burning stoves and fireplaces are commonly used for heating homes the government has had to place strict regulations on wood burning in order control air pollution levels.

Exactly how can wood smoke affect your health? Fine particulate matter carried in wood smoke can damage the lungs and weaken the immune system which can lead to asthma, allergies and respiratory illnesses. The toxins and carcinogens released into the bloodstream can attack the cells and organs of the body causing cancer and lung disease. The particulate pollution from wood smoke can affect lung development in children and increase the risk of becoming afflicted with or causing complications in people who have asthma, respiratory infections, bronchitis and pneumonia even causing premature death in extreme cases. A survey by the Center for Disease Control found asthma to be the leading cause of absenteeism from school. The EPA has also advised citizens suffering from heart disease that even short term exposure to wood smoke has been linked to the onset of heart attacks and arrhythmia’s.

While your neighbor’s actions are not under your control, there are measures that you personally can take to protect your family and preserve the environment. If you insist on burning wood you should be careful about the wood that you burn. Only untreated wood that has been stored in a covered area for at least 6 months should be burned to reduce toxic emissions. Also avoid burning matter other than wood such as trash and colored papers as this can produce dangerous chemical emissions. These measures will not eliminate the toxins and pollution, but can reduce them by a significant amount. You can also convert your wood burning fireplace to a fuel fireplace that burns natural gas or propane. These fuels burn much cleaner than wood, reducing fine particulate pollution and creating better air quality. The American Lung Association, however, warns that these fireplaces must be properly vented to reduce exposure to emissions produced by these fuels containing compounds such as carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxide. Electric fireplaces are another alternative though they lack some of the ambiance of a real flame fire. Converting your wood burning fireplace into a gel fuel fireplace is another option to consider. Although these fireplaces are not recommended for use as a “primary” heat source they burn a fuel made primarily from isopropyl alcohol that mimics the popping and crackling sounds and the flame of a wood fire without emitting any toxins, carcinogens or particulate matter into the air making them an extremely safe, environmentally friendly alternative.

The next time you decide to have a fire consider a safer alternative that matches your intended use or need and leave the air cleaner for everyone to enjoy.