Fireplaces are cozy but toxic

Photo © CedarchisCociredeF - Fotolia

Roasting chestnuts on an open fire? Not a good idea

I must admit I love my fireplace and reading a good library book with my dogs by my side on the floor. The ambiance and the evening seem perfect. But I wake up wheezing the next morning.

I wrote a story about fireplaces a week or so ago and readers wrote in to tell me about how dangerous they are and how ill-informed I am. (Not all were so kind). But I listened and decided I'd better investigate.

Oh dear, I have been educated and I think I'd better pass it along to others who might be as smart as I am (I prefer to look at it that way). Picture this -- your face up against an exhaust pipe from a city bus. Yes, smoke from a fireplace is that toxic to your lungs and your well-being.

A University of Copenhagen researcher Steffen Loft, led a study of air pollution from wood stoves. Here are some of his findings:

"The tiny airborne specks of pollution known as particulate matter, or PM, produced by wood-burning stoves appear to be especially harmful to human health. Small enough to penetrate deep into the lungs, they carry high levels of chemicals linked to cardiopulmonary diseases and cancer, and they can damage DNA and activate genes in hazardous ways comparable to cigarette smoke and car exhaust."

In Canada another study found that kids were more prone to ear infections due to the exposure to particles from fireplaces. The study conducted at the University of British Columbia analyzed visits to the doctor for 45,000 children aged two and under in Vancouver and surrounding areas. It compared that to data on wood smoke pollution levels during the same period.

The study was a first to show a connection between ear infections and neighborhood wood stoves and fireplaces. Elaina MacIntyre, from the University of British Columbia, said: “Parents should be aware that wood smoke is an important risk factor in the development of childhood respiratory infections."

Second-hand smoke

Which brings us to second-hand fireplace smoke. You can kill off your neighbors with it. In Northern California’s nine-county Bay Area Air Quality Management District, where there are a lot of ranches and vineyards, people have a tendency to use wood stoves for heat. The most frequent violations of the region’s fireplace and wood-stove restrictions come from this area. According to a San Francisco Bay area AQMD spokesperson Aaron Richardson, when vented outdoors, the smoke can pose a bigger threat to people in the community than to those sitting fireside.

Even though your fireplace is taking the smoke up the chimney along with Ole St. Nick it's still coming back down. More than 70 percent of indoor particulate concentrations come from sources outside the house, a University of Washington study shows.

In the summer when the heat index is high, health officials warn the elderly, the very young and those with respiratory illnesses to stay indoors. It is the same for smoke coming from a wood-burning source. It has been linked to respiratory infections, adverse changes to the immune system, and early deaths among people with cardiovascular or lung problems.

According to the EPA, while there are environmental benefits from using a renewable resource like wood as a heating source, the improper burning of wood and other biomass materials can cause air quality concerns.

Emission standards

The EPA has emission standards for fireplaces. Take for instance Southern California, home to some of the worst air pollution in the country. You can't burn a fire on poor air quality days. Places like Fairbanks, Alaska and Tacoma, Wash., offer cash incentives for residents to replace their old wood-burning appliances with new, less-polluting ones.

The EPA, through its Burn Wise program, has developed a number of tools to help local governments address and replace existing wood-burning appliances including “Strategies for Reducing Residential Wood Smoke," a comprehensive document covering local regulations, voluntary programs, funding mechanisms and best burn practices – all of which can help reduce particle pollution from existing wood-burning appliances.

The EPA’s Burn Wise website offers the most
comprehensive list of tools and resources for wood smoke reduction initiatives.

I can breathe easier now that I have told you all this.

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