Yesterday, we discovered just how popular backyard fire pits have become in the United States, and just how dangerous they can be, especially to children. Flying sparks, flickering flames, and burning embers aside, there is another element of fire that threatens everyone’s health, even in people who find themselves at some distance from the fire. Our friends at the Group Against Smog and Pollution (GASP) reveal the health impacts that can result from burning wood:
Smoke from wood burning contains scores of toxic chemicals, many of which are carcinogenic and are shared by tobacco smoke, such as benzene, formaldehyde, and toluene.
Wood smoke also includes very small particles, the most dangerous of which are called PM2.5 because they are 2.5 microns in diameter or smaller. These particles can easily pass into the most tightly-sealed home, and can lodge deep in the lungs or cross into the blood, carrying toxins with them.
Exposure to PM2.5 has been linked to higher rates of many illnesses, including asthma, chronic bronchitis, arrhythmia, stroke, and premature deaths… Wood smoke increases PM2.5 and can significantly impact those who burn and their neighbors. When the wind is still or during an Air Quality Action Day, be a good neighbor and avoid unnecessary burning.
We have a lot of Air Quality Action Days in the Pittsburgh area as it is — too many, in fact — related to elevated levels of PM2.5 and ozone. Globally, most humans breathe polluted, unhealthy air which is responsible for more than 7 million premature deaths every year — including tens of thousands of Americans. Some people are more vulnerable to the harmful effects of smoke than others, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reminds us using peer-reviewed data that is well-known and growing:
Wood smoke can affect everyone, but children, teenagers, older adults, people with lung disease, including asthma and COPD or people with heart diseases are the most vulnerable. Research indicates that obesity or diabetes may also increase risk. New or expectant mothers may also want to take precautions to protect the health of their babies, because some studies indicate they may be at increased risk.
It’s important to limit your exposure to smoke—especially if you are more susceptible than others:
- If you have heart or lung disease, such as congestive heart failure, angina, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, emphysema or asthma, you may experience health effects earlier and at lower smoke levels than healthy people.
- Older adults are more likely to be affected by smoke, possibly because they are more likely to have chronic heart or lung diseases than younger people.
- Children also are more susceptible to smoke for several reasons: their respiratory systems are still developing; they breathe more air (and air pollution) per pound of body weight than adults; and they’re more likely to be active outdoors.
Adding more particulate matter and airborne chemicals from burning wood in a backyard fire pit seems to be an unforced error of human behavior and self-preservation. However, for those who are going to fire it up anyway, here is some important advice from the EPA:
- Only burn seasoned, dry wood, which burns hotter and cleaner.
- Use a moisture meter to check firewood; moisture content is best at about 20 percent.
- Cover stacked wood, but allow good air flow so it can dry.
- Never burn wood during air quality alert days, when air pollution is already higher.
- Never burn green wood, construction waste, plastic, garbage, or yard waste. They create more smoke and can be toxic.
- Take extra care if you live in a region where brush fires are of concern.
GASP has more helpful tips to save money, reduce air pollution from your backyard fire pit, and stay safe:
- Store wood outside, off the ground, and keep it covered
- Use only dry wood (moisture under 20%), aged through summer and for at least 6 months
- Start the fire with dry kindling
- Burn hot — smoldering fires are dangerous and inefficient
- Remove ash regularly to maintain good airflow
- Install smoke and CO detectors
NEVER burn the following:
- Wet, rotted, moldy, or diseased wood
- Driftwood, plywood, or particle board
- Painted, coated, or pressure-treated wood
- Garbage, cardboard, or plastics — they release even more toxins and damage your wood-burning appliance
One more plea for consideration and respect: Please don’t burn wood if the smoke will carry over into a neighbor’s yard, especially if that neighbor has children.