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The health hazards of wood smoke
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The fireplace and hearth was once the heart of a home, but in some families, it's been replaced by the TV, and it's being banished for health and environmental reasons. Is the occasional fire really a threat to your family's health? - photo by Jennifer Graham
Behold the wood-burning fireplace while you can. What was once the source of warmth and ambience, the fireplace is being rebranded as an oversized cigarette, spewing potentially deadly chemicals into the lungs gathered round it.

If you care about your familys health and that of your neighbors, the sight of a glowing hearth should be about as comforting as the sight of a diesel engine idling in your living room, wrote Sam Harris, the scientist and author best known for his attacks on religion in a widely circulated essay called The Fireplace Delusion.

Others are less provocative, but equally concerned about the effects of breathing wood smoke and its fine particles, of dust or soot, which can penetrate the lungs. Their lobbying efforts have led to a municipal ban on wood-burning heaters and stoves in San Francisco, and on new fireplaces and stoves in Berkeley, California, and New York City, in addition to numerous other restrictive measures across the United States.

And in Canada, Montreal intends to eliminate all wood-burning stoves and fireplaces by 2020, and is requiring homeowners to register them with the government or pay a $500 fine.

The worrisome din may make parents afraid to strike a match lest they be accused of child abuse, but the American Lung Association, while cautioning against certain types of smoke, isnt telling Americans to board up their fireplaces yet. The group does, however, advise caution.

Burning wood can have serious impacts on your health and in your home, so if youre going to do this, use devices that are cleaner and less polluting, make sure your chimney is cleaned out on a regular basis and make sure those emissions are going out, said Janice Nolen, assistant vice president of national policy for the Lung Association.

Moreover, people should use fireplaces, fire pits and wood stoves for certain types of wood only, and not trash.

A toxic brew

The World Health Organization blames wood smoke inhalation for millions of cases of pneumonia, asthma, lung cancer and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease worldwide and says chronic exposure can also increase the risk of cervical cancer.

When wood or gas burn, they give off carbon monoxide, and an improperly vented fireplace can contribute to an unhealthy or even fatal buildup of carbon monoxide in the home, said Jim Sideras, a fire chief in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.

The smoke is also a toxic brew of particulates so tiny they cannot be filtered, formaldehyde, sulfur dioxide and at least two chemicals considered carcinogens: polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and dioxin, according to a report on the health effects of wood smoke compiled by Environment and Human Health Inc. of North Haven, Connecticut.

That report says inhaled smoke can cause respiratory problems and dampen the immune system, particularly in children and those with existing health problems, and cause eye and throat irritation, coughing and headaches in healthy people.

But as Nolen said, Smoke is not healthy, and no one is arguing that it is.

Few of us put our mouths over our chimney, said John Crouch, public affairs director of the Hearth, Patio & Barbecue Association, a national trade group. Weve all been around wood smoke since the beginning of time; the key is to minimize it, he said.

For this reason, the HPBA has supported many of the new restrictions that cut down on air pollution, particular in mountainous regions where inversions prevent smoke from dissipating in valleys. People who burn wood need to not only minimize their health risks but to be good neighbors, Crouch said.

For its part, the Hearth, Patio & Barbecue Association, which declared October to be National Fireplace Month, says the industry proceeds apace, despite the new regulations that would seem to throw water on its business. The isolated bans notwithstanding, 57 percent of American homes have fireplaces, and 38 percent of people with fireplaces say they use them every day during winter, according to HPBA research.

However, new installation is skewing toward gas rather than wood-burning units, both inside and outside the house, said John Crouch, the HPBAs director of public affairs.

Thats not related to wood smoke; its that gas fireplaces look a lot nicer, and theyre more convenient. You click it on, you click it off, and have a clean, cheery fire with no mess, Crouch said.

The Lung Association says that gas fireplaces are better than wood when it comes to health, since there is no particulate emission from natural gas.

The future of fireplaces

If the rest of the country goes the way of Montreal, New York City and Berkeley, something essential will be lost, says Howard Mansfield, a New Hampshire author whose 2013 book "Dwelling in Possibility" defined the hearth as the heart of a home.

When we lose the hearth, we lose the central gathering place of a home; we lose the shadows, the intimacy, the storytelling, the focus. We lose something that gives us permission to slow down, said Mansfield, noting that the Latin word for focus is hearth.

Fire, Mansfield said, is our most ancient connection, a seemingly stable link between modern humans and their earliest ancestors. When humans moved inside, they brought the campfire with them and installed it in fireplaces and wood stoves. But the electric light and the furnace both freed families from cold and darkness and dispersed them to separate spaces, and nothing has quite replaced the fire as a gathering place, he said. (Except maybe the TV.)

There is nothing like a wood fire. It makes the whole house feel different, he added. "That's a lot you're asking people to give up."

Burn notice

Knowing that, both the American Lung Association and the Environmental Protection Agency have issued suggestions for healthier wood burning.

If youre going to burn, burn good, solid, dry wood and pellets, Nolen said. Do not burn trash, garbage or waste. That includes construction debris and that leftover holiday wrapping paper, all of which can contain chemicals. And upgrade old wood stoves and fireplace units to ones certified by the EPA, she said.

The EPA seconds that, and also offers a raft of other suggestions on its website, under the heading Burn Wise. One suggestion in particular will appeal to people reluctant to give up their fireplaces: Burn hot fires, it says. For most appliances, a smoldering fire is not safe or efficient. For those unwilling to risk it, there's always the Yule Log programming on YouTube.
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