How wood-burning fireplaces may threaten your health

By Amanda Schmidt, AccuWeather staff writer


Frigid winter weather may prompt you to fire up that warm, cozy fireplace. However, a wood-burning fire in your fireplace can cause a number of health problems.

The smoke produced by the fire can contain a number of dangerous pollutants that can contribute to various health problems, according to American Lung Association (ALA) Assistant Vice President for National Policy Janice Nolen.

These very small particles can get into your eyes and respiratory system. In the short term, the result can be burning eyes, a runny nose, shortness of breath, asthma attacks and acute bronchitis. They can also increase susceptibility to respiratory infections.

Particulate matter are very fine particles that can be inhaled deep in the lungs. These very small particles can get into organs like the heart, as well as blood vessels. This can lead to heart attacks, lung cancer and premature death, according to Cleveland Clinic pulmonologist Dr. Emily Pennington.

fireplace pexels


Fireplaces produce gases that people don't always think about, such as carbon monoxide, which is a lethal gas. They also produce organic compounds and hazardous air pollutants like benzene and formaldehyde, which can react badly in the body, Nolen said.

“Those are just some of the substances that can come out of the fireplace that people may not think about coming from something as comfortable as wood-burning,” Nolen said.

These particles can worsen both indoor and outdoor air quality and can contribute to climate change, according to Pennington.

United Kingdom officials have issued regulations to curb the health dangers and pollution caused by wood-burning fireplaces, according to The Sun.

Fireplaces, along with wood burning stoves, can be particularly harmful when a large percentage of a community uses this equipment, as they can produce a lot of air pollution in these communities, thus, potentially harming outdoor air quality and making it very dangerous for people to breathe.

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Symptoms from exposure can differ depending on the person. Some people are more vulnerable to the impacts of exposure, such as children, adults over 65 and those with heart or lung diseases like asthma.

The amount of time that you spend exposed to the poor air quality will also play a role in your likelihood for adverse effects.

“If you're using your fireplace at Christmas time that might not be as much of a problem, as say you're using it to heat your home or as a regular secondary source of heat,” Nolen said.

However, fireplace smoke could be an issue for a person who is more sensitive to it even if it's only one day, and symptoms may not show up until later.

winter heating


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

If you do decide to use wood-burning fireplace and stoves, Pennington has these suggestions for safer blazes:

  • Use clean wood that has been dried for at least six months. This will burn cleaner and more efficiently.
  • Build small fires, and never burn garbage.
  • Directly vent heating devices outside the home. This will reduce exposure to carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxide and other harmful particles.
  • Monitor the air quality in your area. If the air quality is poor, use alternative heating options if available.
  • If you live with someone with lung or heart disease, use an air filter in the living room and bedroom to reduce the airborne particles.
  • Consider replacing a wood burning stove with a clean-burning natural gas or propane stove, pellet stove or an EPA certified wood stove. If you have a wood fireplace, consider replacing it with a gas insert.

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, allergist and immunologist Dr. Sheila Armogida said to the Cleveland Clinic.

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

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 thus help reduce risks to your health.


For more safety and preparedness tips, visit AccuWeather.com/Ready.

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