Mind, Body & Spirit

Wood smoke from fireplace can cause health problems

Wood-burning fireplaces can be a pleasant source of comfort in winter months but for some people, burning wood in a fireplace can literally take their breath away.

Wood smoke contains hundreds of chemical compounds and some of them can harm people with heart or respiratory disease, babies, young children and pregnant women.

Pollutants in wood smoke can cause the eyes, nose and throat to burn with irritation, and cause headache and nausea in some people.

Walking in neighborhoods where fireplace smoke is heavy can cause irregular heart beat, chest pain and shortness of breath in susceptible people. The smoke can make asthma symptoms worse and cause higher rates of lung inflammation and pneumonia in young children .

Also, unless chimneys are cleaned seasonally, creosote, a combustible byproduct of wood burning, can lodge in the chimney and spark a fire.

Fireplaces aren’t efficient home heaters. Most homes aren’t perfectly insulated, so cold air seeps in under doors and through cracks, while hot air escapes up the chimney.

If flues are not properly installed and maintained, particles released during wood burning can escape into the home. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says several of the pollutants emitted by wood burning have demonstrated cancer-causing properties similar to cigarette smoke.

To reduce your risk of harm from using a wood-burning fireplace, follow these tips:

• Burn hardwoods like oak, mesquite and pecan instead of soft woods like cedar, fir or pine. The wood should be split and dried for at least six months.

• Use smaller pieces of wood. They burn more efficiently and are a better source of heat.

• Allow enough room inside the fireplace for air to circulate freely around the wood.

• Never burn plastics, painted wood, charcoal, printed pages in a fireplace. They will release toxic materials into the air.

• Check your chimney from the outside. If you see smoke, your fire is not burning hot enough. Give the fire more air, and then check again.

• Check before you light a fire to see if local air pollution levels are elevated. If they are, avoid using the fireplacee. Get pollution information at airinfonow.org or call Pima County’s Department of Environmental Quality air pollution hotline at (520) 882-4AIR or (520) 882-4247.

• Remember … If you can smell smoke, you are breathing smoke!