Are indoor fireplaces safe for your health?

By Mary Daly
January 07, 2019, 10:39:47 AM EST

Cozying up to a glowing fireplace is a cold-weather tradition. But don’t get too comfortable. In certain situations, that crackling fire can be very unsafe. Here are five hazardous health effects of fireplaces, as well as how to practice indoor fireplace safety to mitigate those risks.

1. Fireplaces release dangerous chemicals

There are four main types of fireplaces that people typically have in their homes: wood-burning, gas, electric and ethanol. And it’s usually the wood-burning fires that release the most dangerous toxins into the air (though the other types pose risks, as well).

When wood burns, it releases a mixture of potentially harmful gases and fine particles. “Wood smoke contains several toxic harmful air pollutants including: benzene, formaldehyde, acrolein and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs),” according to the Environmental Protection Agency. This pollutes indoor air (as well as outdoor air) and can trigger several health problems, such as respiratory issues and lung cancer. And you’re not in the clear if you burn synthetic logs, as they’ve been associated with some serious health issues, including breast cancer.

2. You could be at risk of carbon monoxide poisoning

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Wood and gas fireplaces have the ability to release dangerous amounts of carbon monoxide in a home. “Carbon monoxide is produced when fuels are burned such as gasoline, natural gas, oil, kerosene, wood or charcoal,” according to the American Lung Association. And because carbon monoxide is colorless, odorless and tasteless, it can easily accumulate to toxic levels if the fireplace isn’t venting properly.

fireplace

Carbon monoxide prevents the body from getting the oxygen it needs. Breathing in small amounts can result in headaches, nausea, dizziness and confusion, according to the American Lung Association. And inhaling larger levels can have much more serious consequences, including loss of consciousness and death. So it’s critical to consistently maintain your fireplace, check the venting often and use a carbon monoxide detector.

3. Fires might trigger respiratory conditions

Besides carbon monoxide poisoning, the mixture of gases and particles that certain fireplaces (mainly wood-burning) emit can trigger many other health problems, including respiratory conditions. “That’s because smoke from these fires contains small particles that can get into your eyes and respiratory system,” according to Cleveland Clinic. “The result can be burning eyes, a runny nose and illnesses such as bronchitis.”

The tiny particles can find their way deep into your lungs and bloodstream — exacerbating preexisting conditions, such as asthma. And even healthy people might feel temporarily ill. “Fine particles can also trigger heart attacks, stroke, irregular heart rhythms, and heart failure, especially in people who are already at risk for these conditions,” according to the EPA. Children, older adults and people with heart and lung issues are the most vulnerable.

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