Fireplaces and woodstoves are being fired up on cooler nights, increasing smoke that contains hundreds of chemical compounds, including nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide, volatile organic compounds and particulate matter.
"These compounds can cause health problems, especially for children, pregnant women and people with respiratory ailments and heart disease," said a release from the Pima County Department of Environmental Quality.
"Just because wood burning is our oldest way of generating heat, does not mean it is the best way," said Beth Gorman, program manager at PDEQ. "Every winter I receive calls from community members who cannot walk in their neighborhood due to the effects of wood smoke on their health."
Exposure to the pollutants in wood smoke can cause eye, nose and throat irritation, headaches, nausea, irregular heart beat, chest pain, shortness of breath, dizziness and can aggravate asthma and other respiratory diseases. The Children's Health Environmental Coalition cites many studies that show how children living in wood-burning households experience "higher rates of lung inflammation, breathing difficulties, pneumonia, and other respiratory diseases."
Standard wood-burning fireplaces are an inefficient method of heating and can actually remove more heat from a house than they produce, a release said. Cold outside air rushes in through cracks and leaks in the home to replace the heated air that exits up the chimney.
Residents who heat their homes with non-EPA-certified wood-burning fireplaces or woodstoves may consider replacing them with new ones to reduce emissions and improve heating efficiency. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency-certified woodstoves, fireplace inserts and natural gas fireplaces emit "significantly less air pollution than traditional woodstoves and fireplaces," the release said; in fact, emissions can be reduced by 85 percent when compared to traditional fireplaces and woodstoves. Natural gas fireplaces reduce emissions significantly more.
"If possible, save your fireplace or woodstove for special occasions as opposed to regular use. Fireplace fires are not an efficient way to produce heat and they can be deadly, if not properly supervised. The safest ways to heat your home, and the cleanest for the air, are through solar power or a central heating system," Gorman said.
Tips for healthier burning
If you use a fireplace or woodstove for heat, the Pima County Department of Environmental Quality offers these tips for healthier burning:
• Burn seasoned hardwoods (oak, mesquite, pecan) instead of softwoods (cedar, fir, pine) because hardwoods burn hotter and form less creosote and smoke;
• Use wood that has been split and dried for at least six months;
• Use smaller pieces of wood. They burn more efficiently, and thus are a better source of heat;
• Make sure there is enough room in the firebox for air to circulate freely around the wood;
• Do not use green or wet woods because they smoke and form creosote;
• Never burn painted scrap wood or wood treated with preservatives, because they could release highly toxic pollutants;
• Do not burn plastics, charcoal, and colored paper such as comics, because they also produce toxic pollutants;
• Go outside and check your chimney frequently. If you see smoke coming out, you're wasting wood by not burning hot enough. Give the fire more air and check the chimney again;
• Watch your smoke. If it goes into your neighbor's yard, you are causing a nuisance and should remedy the situation;
• Avoid burning wood on days when air pollution levels are elevated. Check www.airinfonow.org or (520) 882-4AIR for hourly air pollution information.