Health Hazards Surround Wood-burning Fires

Burning wood in your fireplace all winter may feel nostalgic and keep you warm, but research reveals that smoke from those fires can also cause health problems. Wood fires release tiny particles that get into the lungs and can harm people with underlying health conditions. This can affect not only the lungs, but the heart as well. 

Sanjay Rajagopalan, MD, Chief of Cardiovascular Medicine with University Hospitals Harrington Heart & Vascular Institute is an expert on environmental hazards as they pertain to the heart. He answered some questions regarding the dangers of wood-burning fires.

(Answers have been edited for length and clarity.)

What is so hazardous about a wood-burning fire?

The thing that people don’t recognize is that when you have a wood-burning stove or a fire indoors it releases a lot of unseen pollutants that could be hazardous to your health. Simply put, there are thousands of chemical constituents present. Burning wood releases particles, some of which are ultrafine and less than 1 micron in size (a micron is a unit of measurement that is 1 millionth of a meter) that may be hazardous to heart health. The smaller the particles, the easier they move past the lungs and travel to the rest of the body. It turns out, while the lungs are very efficient at filtering particulate constituents emanating from wood-burning furnaces, they may not be able to filter out the very small ultrafines as well as other toxic gases.

Who is most at risk?

People with pre-existing cardiovascular and pulmonary conditions. Asthmatic attacks may worsen for patients with existing asthma. They could also get lower respiratory tract infections – bronchitis has been well-recognized. Someone with pre-existing cardiac conditions could experience heart attacks, strokes or even heart failure.

How much exposure is dangerous?

If you happen to be completely healthy and you don’t have any predisposing conditions, having a wood-burning fire overnight or even for a few hours is not going to pose any excessive health hazards. On the other hand, if you have a predisposing condition, for instance asthma, COPD or an underlying cardiovascular condition that makes you vulnerable, prolonged exposure might not be such a good idea. A few hours on occasion might be okay, but continued daily exposure might pose significant health hazards.

Can you define continued exposure?

If you’re in the habit of using this day after day, or if you rely on wood-burning to generate power, that could pose a potential hazard.

Do gas-burning fireplaces pose the same risks?

No. Those are actually much, much more contained.

How seriously should people take this information?

I don’t want to sound alarmist. This is a very happy and enjoyable season. The idea of having a warm, cozy fire that brings people together should be something that we all celebrate. But on the other hand, I want you to also be aware that this could pose hazards to those of us who happen to have pre-existing health conditions.