Who doesn’t like to sit by the fire, wrapped up in a warm blanket, drinking hot cocoa, with the smell of burning wood permeating the house? It sounds cozy, does it not? Cozy it might be, but is it safe?
Is it Safe?
If you can smell smoke, then you are breathing it.
Wood smoke contains matter particulates (PM2.5), which are tiny particles contained in smog. These particles can be solid or liquid, and their small size makes it easy for them to travel deep into your lungs when you breathe them. They irritate the respiratory tract, can aggravate cardiovascular diseases and cause precocious death.
Another pollutant contained in wood smoke is volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Also present in smog, they are odorless, tasteless and colorless compounds. They too irritate the respiratory tract, and they can cause breathing problems. Some VOCs can also cause cancer.
Carbon monoxide (CO) is yet another pollutant present in wood smoke. As for the VOCs, it has no smell and no color. It is poisonous if inhaled in too big of a quantity and can kill you. It causes nausea, headaches, and dizziness, and can also aggravate the health condition of people with cardiac issues.
Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) are another health hazardous compound found in wood smoke. Some are suspected of causing cancer.
Other toxic components like chlorinated dioxins and nitrogen oxides are also found in wood smoke and contribute to various lung problems.
Over a long period, inhaling wood smoke can cause chronic lung disease and cancer.
Over a short period, it can cause headaches and irritations in your eyes, sinuses, lungs, and throat. It can also generate reduced lung function, more severe symptoms of existing lung diseases, and increase the risk of a heart attack.
Whom Does it Affect?
Wood smoke can affect anybody, but certain groups of people are more at risk.
Children are more at risk of developing health issues from wood smoke than adults because their respiratory systems are still in development. They also inhale more air since they are generally more active than adults. Babies and pregnant women are also at higher risk.
Anybody with lung or heart diseases, such as asthma, emphysema or angina, can see their health affected at lower smoke levels and earlier than healthier people.
The elderly are also more at risk since they are more likely to already have one form or another of lung or heart disease.
Winter conditions restrict the dispersion of air pollutants. Since they are trapped at ground level, it increases the population’s exposure to them.
What can you do?
If someone in your household is at higher risk, you should consider alternative heating fuels, like gas or electricity.
That said, new stoves and fireplaces that are EPA-certified release 80% less smoke, pollute by 90% less, and burn one third less wood than older models and models that are not EPA-certified. They get rid of the smoke and combustion by-products before they even make it to your chimney. Make sure that any wood-burning appliance that you own or plan to buy complies with the standards set by the Canadian Standards Association or the United States Environmental Protection Agency. When looking for a new stove or fireplace, beware of cheap appliances manufactured abroad. They are built with low-quality materials and have a shorter life expectancy. When purchasing a heating appliance, it is better to go for quality before price. Remember that it will be the central appliance in your house and should last for many years to come. A poorly built stove or fireplace increases fire hazards and smoke emissions.
Having a fireplace insert installed in your open-hearth fireplace reduces smoke emission and air pollutants. They offer the beauty of a fireplace, but the efficiency of a stove.
Install smoke detectors in your home, and at least one carbon monoxide (CO) detector.
A very hot fire heats your home better and produces less pollution and smoke. To achieve that, you need to burn dry wood and give your fire enough oxygen.
Split your wood into pieces no bigger than six inches in diameter. It will dry and burn better. Stack it loosely and at the height of at least six inches off the ground, to reduce humidity. Cover it and wait at least six months before burning it. The best burning wood contains less than 20% moisture.
When building a fire, do not put too much wood. You want a hot fire that burns the wood completely. Fewer logs mean better air circulation, which results in a bigger fire.
Keep your damper open. Hot air from the fire goes up the chimney and brings the smoke with it. A closed damper stops the hot air from going up the chimney, thus sending the smoke into your home, and producing little heat.
Use hardwood like maple, birch or oak instead of softwood. Hardwood logs emit fewer air pollutants. They also produce less creosote, which is a frequent cause of chimney fires.
Do not burn moldy, rotten or wet wood. Never use driftwood, plywood or any wood that has glue, paint, or is chemically treated. Cardboard and garbage like foam, plastics, even magazines with colored ink, emit air pollutants.
Have a tight-fitting door installed on your fireplace instead of a screen.
Make sure the room where your fireplace is located is well ventilated.
Use high-efficiency particulate-absorbing (HEPA) filters in your air cleaners and vacuum cleaners. Change or clean the filters regularly.
Ask a certified professional to inspect and clean your chimney or flue every year, removing any hazardous creosote build-up. Having your fireplace or stove checked yearly ensures there are no cracks in it and that it is in excellent condition.
Put Your Health First
Your health should be your top priority. When buying a new stove or fireplace, opt for quality over price, and always make sure it is EPA-certified. Gas and electric fireplaces are better overall for your health and the environment; but if wood is your choice fuel, using your fireplace responsibly, keeping it clean and having it inspected yearly will reduce smoke emissions and health risks considerably.