Fireplaces heat up as temperatures cool down

Fireplaces heat up as temperatures cool down
Make sure the hot embers are completely out before leaving after using a fireplace.

TUCSON, AZ (Tucson News Now) - Cooler temperatures are here and homeowners are lighting up fireplaces to help keep the chill at bay. Wood-burning fireplaces can be a pleasant source of warmth and comfort when the air gets crisp, but for some people, fireplace smoke can make it very hard to breathe.

Wood smoke contains tiny particles and toxic pollutants including benzene, formaldehyde and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. These 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 even cause headaches, nausea and acute bronchitis.

Walking in neighborhoods where fireplace smoke is heavy may cause an irregular heartbeat, chest pain and shortness of breath in susceptible people. In homes where wood-burning fireplaces are used smoke can make asthma symptoms worse and cause lung inflammation and pneumonia in young children.

“You can watch particulate matter levels rise at our air monitoring sites during chilly evenings,” said Beth Gorman, Senior Program Manager with Pima County Department of Environmental Quality, in a recent news release. “From the calls we receive, I know it is challenging to breathe for people living near fireplace users, if they have respiratory issues.”

According to the PDEQ, fireplaces are not efficient ways to heat a home. Most homes aren’t perfectly insulated, so cold air slips in under doors and through cracks, while hot air rises and escapes up the chimney. If flues are not properly installed and maintained, particles released during wood burning can escape into the home. The Environmental Protection Agency provides helpful “burn wise” information on their website and states that several pollutants emitted by wood burning have demonstrated cancer-causing properties similar to cigarette smoke.

For those whose fireplace is their sole source of heat and to reduce the risk of harm from using a wood-burning fireplace, PDEQ recommends following these tips:

  • Have chimneys cleaned seasonally to reduce creosote buildup 
  • 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. Never burn household trash, plastic, plywood, painted or pressure-treated wood
  • 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
  • Occasionally, check your chimney from the outside while the fire is going. 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 fireplace, if possible. Get air current pollution information at www.pima.gov/deq
  • Remember... If you can smell smoke, you are breathing smoke!

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