That Cozy Fire Could Be Hazardous to Your Health

Make sure your wood has been split, stored for at least 6 months
Feet warming by fireplace

When the weather outside turns frightful, there’s nothing cozier than a warm, crackling blaze in the hearth. But a wood-burning fire in your fireplace can cause health problems, especially if you or a family member has a history of lung disease.

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Numerous scientific studies report potentially serious adverse health effects when you breathe in smoke from wood fires in your home fireplace.

That’s because smoke from these fires contains small particles that can get into your eyes and respiratory system. The result can be burning eyes, a runny nose and illnesses such as bronchitis.

Small particles less than 10 micrometers in diameter pose the greatest health problems, because they can get deep into the lungs, and some may even get into the bloodstream.

Among these particles are “fine particles,” which are smaller than 2.5 micrometers in diameter. These fine particles can affect your lungs, says allergist and immunologist Sheila Cain, MD.

Wood smoke also can contain several toxic substances such as benzene, formaldehyde, acrolein and methane, Dr. Cain says.

Limit exposure

“It’s important to limit your exposure to smoke,” Dr. Cain says. “Exposure to wood-burning smoke can cause asthma attacks and bronchitis and also can aggravate heart and lung disease.”

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Dr. Cain says that people with heart or lung diseases, children and older adults are the most likely to be affected by particle pollution exposure.

“If someone living in your home has a history of lung disease, such as asthma, try to avoid use of wood burning fireplaces and wood-burning stoves,” Dr. Cain says. 

Even healthy people may experience temporary symptoms from exposure to elevated levels of particle pollution that a wood fire creates, Dr. Cain says.

In addition to the fireplace smoke that can be released inside the home, research has shown that up to 70 percent of smoke released via the chimney re-enters your home.

Safer blazes

If you’re using a fireplace and smell smoke in your home, the fireplace probably isn’t working as it should, says the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)

If you do decide to use your wood-burning fireplace, the EPA has these suggestions for safer blazes:

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  • Burn dry wood that has been split, covered and stored for at least six months.
  • Have your fireplace and chimney inspected and cleaned every year every year by a certified professional to make sure there are no gaps, cracks or unwanted drafts and to remove any dangerous creosote build-up.
  • Instead of a fireplace screen, outfit your fireplace with a tight-fitting door. 
  • Make sure that the room with the fireplace is well-ventilated.

If you’re thinking about switching to a gas fireplace to avoid the health hazards of a wood-burning fireplace, gas fireplaces also may affect indoor air quality. They emit nitrogen dioxide, a respiratory irritant, Dr. Cain says.

Reduce wood smoke in your home

One way you can reduce your health risks with burning wood in your home is to use newer fireplace inserts. Those manufactured after 1992 are significantly cleaner-burning than older models because of federal air quality regulations that went into effect at that time, the EPA says.

If these newer appliances are properly installed, well-maintained and used correctly, they can reduce outdoor and indoor air pollution resulting from burning wood – and consequently, help reduce risks to your health.

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