Warm, Cozy and Toxic

Breathing burning wood is a hazard—but you can enjoy your fireplace safely.

By Heather Millar

January 2012


Sure, the hearth in your 100-year-old Edwardian house is lovely. And a crackling fire would make the perfect antidote to the evening’s chill. Unfortunately it’s a “Spare the Air” day in your county. Today, as in many air quality districts across the country, burning wood is forbidden. The hearth may be beautiful, but its 1916 design makes the fireplace an environmental nightmare.

People, of course, have gathered around wood fires for millennia. But only in the last few decades have scientists begun to understand that smoke from those fires can be toxic.

It contains all kinds of carcinogens: dioxin, formaldehyde, arsenic, benzene, tar and many others. During winter months, in many locations across the country, wood smoke forms the largest component of air pollution, exceeding sources from industry and vehicle traffic.

Exactly how toxic wood smoke is remains a matter of debate. Some activists maintain that a crackling fire is worse than smoking a dozen cigarettes, while others are more moderate. Still, hundreds of studies have linked smoke from residential fireplaces to a litany of health issues, including asthma, diminished lung capacity, heart disease and stroke. Children and teenagers are among the most vulnerable to some of the hazards of the kind of particle pollution caused by fireplaces, says the American Lung Association.

Heat Up in Smoke

Beyond all the toxins it emits, a conventional fireplace is also inefficient, given that it sends most of its heat up the chimney.

“A traditional, open, wood-burning fireplace creates a lovely ambiance. It gives snap, crackle, pop. But it is not efficient, and it is not a source of heat,” explains Leslie Wheeler, spokesperson for the Hearth Patio and Barbecue Association (HPBA, www.hpba.org), an industry group.

Despite their considerable drawbacks, fireplaces remains high on the average house hunter’s wish list. The HPBA says they were second only to patios in terms of popularity among home buyers in 2011.

It should be no surprise, then, to learn that sales of cleaner-burning fireplace systems have risen steadily over the last decade, according to the HPBA. Natural gas and propane fireplace systems burn the cleanest, and fireplace appliances using those fuels accounted for 70% of the models shipped in 2011.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) now certifies all new fireplace inserts and woodstoves. In response, manufacturers have created more environmentally friendly products in a range of styles, from sleek modern glass to traditional brick or stone. New stoves not only release less pollution, they more efficiently heat the home.

“Sometimes clients will choose something for style, and I’ll tell them it also happens to be green,” says Blanche Garcia, who specializes in “green glam” as a New Jersey-based designer and a host on season six of HGTV’s “Design Star” show. “To have a green fireplace, you don’t have to sacrifice on looks at all. There are more and more interesting possibilities.”

Still, completely retrofitting your fireplace can cost as much as $5,000, or even more, if you choose something like a giant, European masonry hearth big enough to absorb heat and then radiate it throughout the whole house. Federal tax credits for installing eco-friendly fireplaces expired in 2011, but many local jurisdictions offer tax rebates to encourage homeowners to switch. Be sure to ask your retailer about local deals.

Burning Clean and Green

Not ready for a major retrofit of your fireplace? Then here are some things you can do to burn greener this winter:

• Use dry, seasoned firewood. Seasoned wood should have about 20% moisture content, compared with 40% for green wood. After being stacked and stored for several months, seasoned logs light more easily and burn more efficiently.

• Build small, hot fires. This burns the wood more thoroughly and cuts down on emissions out your chimney.

• Use manufactured firelogs. Logs made of compressed sawdust or paper burn much cleaner than firewood. A traditional fire emits 47 grams of pollution each hour while a firelog
cuts that down to 9.6 grams. Look for products manufactured without petroleum-based wax.

• Buy a non-catalytic fireplace insert. These stoves come in a variety of sizes and slide into the existing fireplace opening. Using fans, they guide the smoke coming off the wood so that it burns in two, or even three, stages at temperatures that can reach 1,000° Fahrenheit. More complete combustion means less particulate pollution.

• Invest in a catalytic fireplace insert. These systems are a little pricier, and use a catalytic converter made of ceramic honeycomb covered with platinum or palladium. Smoke from the fire is routed through the converter, which burns the tars, vapors and other organic compounds that make up wood smoke.

• The American Lung Association recommends converting a wood-burning fireplace to use either natural gas or propane gas to avoid both indoor smoke pollution and environmental pollution. Another option: Consider switching to a fireplace system that burns wood pellets made from sawdust and other lumber byproducts, whcih release fewer toxins when burned but require a special fireplace insert, suggests integrative physician Andrew Weil, MD.

• If you can live without the full effect of a roaring fire, consider burning several soy or other low-emission candles in the fireplace for a softer but nonetheless pretty effect.
If you dream of sitting before a blaze on your hearth this winter, explore ways to make that cozy fire easier on both the environment and your budget.

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