Every Year, the Pile of Evidence About the Danger of Burning Wood Gets Bigger

CC BY 2.0. A lovely, warming fire putting out piles of PM2.5 / Lloyd Alter

In the north, a lot of people burn wood all year round, but even a single fire is worse than smoking cigarettes.

It's that time of year in cottage country when people gather round campfires to roast marshmallows or use their fireplaces on cool August nights. That smell of wood smoke takes me right back to childhood.

Up in this part of the world, 150 miles north of Toronto, the population density is so low that it barely registers, and many people burn wood all winter for heating. Why wouldn't they? We are surrounded by wood, free for the taking. Summer residents have their fireplaces and campers have their fire pits.

Hazards of Burning Wood

But it also seems that every year the information on the hazards of burning wood get more dire. Christine Ro, who works for the International Institute for Environment and Development and writes at Forbes, reminds us of the problems in an article Breaking up with open fires is hard to do. She quotes Beth Gardiner, author of Choked: Life and Breath in the Age of Air Pollution:

The gorgeous vistas around Mont Blanc in the French Alps are hidden in haze every winter as residents of the Arve Valley light up their stoves. Researchers in Helsinki reported wood burning accounts for as much as 29 percent of winter particle pollution there; in the suburbs, it reaches 66 percent. Greeks turned to cheap or scavenged wood for heat when economic crisis hit, and air quality plummeted. In California, heating with wood contributes more than 20 percent of wintertime PM2.5 emissions; at one site in Seattle, Washington, it accounted for nearly a third. Wood smoke is why particle pollution in Fairbanks, Alaska, is among America’s worst.

Ro notes that even the wonderful smell is, in fact, carcinogenic benzene. She concludes:

I’m not such a wet blanket that I’m calling for an end to fireplaces or the traditional method for making s’mores. I’ll be sad to have fireless camping trips on the future.

Ban on Open Fires

Other people are doing just that, calling for a ban on open fires. According to Doctors and Scientists against wood smoke pollution, "The South Coast Air Quality Management District in California found that the particulate emissions rate per minute from one beach fire ring (fire pit) is equal to the secondhand smoke from 800 cigarettes."

Whenever we write about this (and I do every year), one of the regular responses is that people have been doing this for thousands of years, that it built our civilization, that it is natural. But people didn't know about PM2.5, the tiny particles that go through the lungs and into the bloodstream. Until very recently, people lived in a cloud of cigarette smoke, and were inhaling PM2.5 all day long. And until recently, people didn't live that long. Sam Harris addresses this in The Fireplace Delusion:

But many other things are just as natural—such as dying at the ripe old age of thirty. Dying in childbirth is eminently natural, as is premature death from scores of diseases that are now preventable.... For nearly two centuries the divide between what is natural—and all the needless misery that entails—and what is good has been growing. Breathing the fumes issuing from your neighbor’s chimney, or from your own, now falls on the wrong side of that divide.

Harris continues:

The case against burning wood is every bit as clear as the case against smoking cigarettes. Indeed, it is even clearer, because when you light a fire, you needlessly poison the air that everyone around you for miles must breathe.... the reality of our situation is scientifically unambiguous: If you care about your family’s health and that of your neighbors, the sight of a glowing hearth should be about as comforting as the sight of a diesel engine idling in your living room.

I have in the past taken the position that what matters most is how much you are burning. So if you are in a super-insulated or Passive House, having a clean-burning wood stove for the few days a year you need heat isn't the end of the world, especially if you are in the middle of nowhere. I have quoted architect Terrell Wong: "Reducing your need for heating 90%. Then occasionally having a fire in an uber-efficient German boiler is not a bad thing." A lot of Passive House architects agree and have them in their own houses.

My firewood

A couple of years's supply of firewood/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

I have my face cord of firewood underneath my cabin, for those few evenings each year when it gets cold, usually around Canadian Thanksgiving in October. When I designed this place, It was before I knew there was anything wrong with an occasional fire. I can do without, but the people who live here year round cannot; the electricity goes out often and there is no gas. The residents don't have a lot of money and propane or fuel oil is expensive, while the wood is free, although you have to work for it.

But it becomes more obvious every year that this is not healthy for anyone, inside or out.