Our Fireplaces are Spewing Toxins...What to Do?

Tucson Citizen
A blazing hearth during the holidays may be ingrained in nostalgic tradition, but pollutants spewing from the chimney can be annoying or worse for neighbors with respiratory problems.

"Every year I receive calls from community members who cannot walk in their neighborhood due to the effects of wood smoke on their health," Beth Gorman, coordinator of air quality programs for the Pima County Department of Environmental Quality, said recently.

Wood smoke contains hundreds of chemical compounds, including some that can cause health problems for children, pregnant women and those with respiratory impairments, she said.

The major culprits that contribute to breathing problems are carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, volatile organic compounds and particulate matter.

"The small particles from the smoke can penetrate deep into the lungs and become trapped for years, contributing to lung disease," Gorman said.

Symptoms of ill effects from wood smoke are eye, nose and throat irritation, headache, nausea, irregular heartbeat, chest pain, shortness of breath and dizziness.

Wood smoke can also aggravate asthma and other respiratory diseases, Gorman said.

Possible health problems can strike inside homes with fireplaces or wood-burning stoves, Gorman said, if flues are not properly adjusted or chimneys are cracked.

What to do for Cleaner wood burning...

• Hardwoods such as oak, mesquite and pecan burn hotter and cleaner than softwoods including pine, cedar and fir, and create less creosote buildup, a chief cause of chimney fires.

• Avoid uncured green or wet woods that create more smoke and creosote.

• Never burn painted or treated wood because toxic pollutants may be released.

• Do not burn plastics, charcoal or colored paper, including Christmas wrapping, because they release toxins.

• Check smoke coming from chimneys: Lots of smoke indicates a fire that is not burning hot enough. Give the fire more air.

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