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Is Your Fire Toxic?

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EHS Corporate Care

Crisp, clear fall days and cool evenings are a welcome break from the summer heat.  It seems perfectly natural to executives to enjoy the chillier weather with blistering fires and crackling wood in the fireplace.

Surprisingly, burning wood adds harmful fine particles and toxins to the air. “The  fine particles, or particulate matter (PM) in wood smoke can trigger asthma attacks in a manner similar to diesel exhaust or secondhand cigarette smoke,” states Laura Oatman, environmental research scientist from the Minnesota Department of Health.

Worse, these solid particles were linked to 30,000 deaths in the U.S. and 2.1 million deaths worldwide per year.  In fact, wood smoke is chemically active in the body 40 times longer than tobacco.

How is it possible for a friendly fire to cause so much damage?  Chemically, wood is approximately half carbon and half oxygen and hydrogen. When burning a piece of wood, it smokes and turns black simultaneously. This is due to the oxygen vaporizing under intense heat faster than the carbon burns. The smoke that vaporizes out of the wood creates a cloud of tiny droplets of a tar-like liquid of air toxins known as polycyclic organic matter.  Consider that these minute particles are only 2.5 microns in diameter and smaller. Thus, 35 to 100 or more of these fine particles could fit across the diameter of a human hair.

Unfortunately, some of the smallest fine particles can be inhaled deep into the lungs and even pass through the lungs into your bloodstream. Ultimately, this can trigger respiratory problems such as asthma attacks and even heart problems. Fine particles are considered especially dangerous for young children with developing lungs, and people of all ages who have asthma, bronchitis, other respiratory problems, or cardiovascular disease.

The Environmental Protection Agency works to monitor and minimize these air toxins – which includes potential carcinogens such as benzopyrene.  “Wood smoke contains harmful chemical substances such as carbon monoxide (CO), nitrogen oxides (NOx) volatile organic compounds (VOCs), and dioxin. Some VOCs are irritating, toxic, and/or cancer causing. One of the biggest human health threats is caused by PM from wood smoke, indoors or outdoors…” EPA suggests.

But at what airborne concentration does wood smoke convert from being an alluring seasonal scent to noxious air pollution?  Generally, most busy executives wouldn’t even consider wood smoke as an issue because it tends to blow away or vent from the fireplace. The key to minimizing exposure is to minimize the smoke you inhale. Indoors, make sure you are using an EPA-certified fireplace or wood stove. Use only properly seasoned firewood that is dry to ensure that the wood burns hot and is brightly flaming until only charcoal remains. Ensure your fireplace is clean, and check the exhaust coming from the top of the chimney, it should be perfectly clear or white with steam. A plume of blue or gray smoke indicates a problem. Stand downwind from backyard fires, and be aware that smoke from a neighborhood bonfire can seep indoors through intake vents or windows and trigger serious health problems.

If you have had more than average exposure to wood smoke, schedule a visit to your doctor at EHS Corporate Care for a complete exam of your lungs.

John P.  Mamana, M.D.

EHS Corporate Care



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