Are Indoor Fireplaces Safe for Your Health?
- By: Mary Daly
Cozying up to a glowing fireplace is a cold-weather tradition. But don’t get too comfortable. In certain situations, that crackling fire can be very unsafe. Here are five hazardous health effects of fireplaces, as well as how to practice indoor fireplace safety to mitigate those risks.
1. FIREPLACES RELEASE DANGEROUS CHEMICALS
There are four main types of fireplaces that people typically have in their homes: wood-burning, gas, electric and ethanol. And it’s usually the wood-burning fires that release the most dangerous toxins into the air (though the other types pose risks, as well).
When wood burns, it releases a mixture of potentially harmful gases and fine particles. “Wood smoke contains several toxic harmful air pollutants including: benzene, formaldehyde, acrolein and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs),” according to the Environmental Protection Agency. This pollutes indoor air (as well as outdoor air) and can trigger several health problems, such as respiratory issues and lung cancer. And you’re not in the clear if you burn synthetic logs, as they’ve been associated with some serious health issues, including breast cancer.
2. YOU COULD BE AT RISK OF CARBON MONOXIDE POISONING
Wood and gas fireplaces have the ability to release dangerous amounts of carbon monoxide in a home. “Carbon monoxide is produced when fuels are burned such as gasoline, natural gas, oil, kerosene, wood or charcoal,” according to the American Lung Association. And because carbon monoxide is colorless, odorless and tasteless, it can easily accumulate to toxic levels if the fireplace isn’t venting properly.
Carbon monoxide prevents the body from getting the oxygen it needs. Breathing in small amounts can result in headaches, nausea, dizziness and confusion, according to the American Lung Association. And inhaling larger levels can have much more serious consequences, including loss of consciousness and death. So it’s critical to consistently maintain your fireplace, check the venting often and use a carbon monoxide detector.
3. FIRES MIGHT TRIGGER RESPIRATORY CONDITIONS
Besides carbon monoxide poisoning, the mixture of gases and particles that certain fireplaces (mainly wood-burning) emit can trigger many other health problems, including respiratory conditions. “That’s because smoke from these fires contains small particles that can get into your eyes and respiratory system,” according to Cleveland Clinic. “The result can be burning eyes, a runny nose and illnesses such as bronchitis.”
The tiny particles can find their way deep into your lungs and bloodstream — exacerbating preexisting conditions, such as asthma. And even healthy people might feel temporarily ill. “Fine particles can also trigger heart attacks, stroke, irregular heart rhythms, and heart failure, especially in people who are already at risk for these conditions,” according to the EPA. Children, older adults and people with heart and lung issues are the most vulnerable.
4. WHAT YOU HEAT CAN BE A HAZARD
Using your fireplace correctly isn’t without risks. But burning inappropriate items can make the situation much more dangerous. “These materials can release toxic or harmful chemicals when burned, and may damage your appliance,” according to the EPA. Items you never should burn include:
- Household trash — including plastic, cardboard, foam, rubber and anything with colored ink
- Painted or treated wood
- Driftwood, plywood, particle board or any other wood with glue
- Wet, rotten or diseased wood
- Manure and animal remains
Plus, consider what’s around your fireplace that might be receiving some of its warmth. For instance, if your fires continuously heat a nearby decoration with toxic paint or the plastic of a faux Christmas tree, that might release unhealthy chemicals into the air. So it’s best to be overly cautious about what that warm glow can touch.
5. FIREPLACES ARE A HOUSE FIRE AND INJURY RISK
Speaking of what’s within the flames’ reach, another risk of indoor fireplaces is injury or property destruction from the fire itself. Fireplaces, chimneys and chimney connectors accounted for 31 percent of house fires in the United States between 2011 and 2015, according to the National Fire Protection Association. (Space heaters were the No. 1 culprit.) And the leading factor contributing to those house fires was failure to clean the equipment — especially chimneys.
Plus, according to the Consumer Product Safety Commission, young children receive the most injuries from fireplaces. Many injuries stem from a person being too close to the flames, though some occur from improper fireplace use or damaged equipment. Regardless, it’s critical to make indoor fireplace safety a priority if you intend to build a fire.
HOW TO PRACTICE INDOOR FIREPLACE SAFETY
A properly functioning fireplace should pose the fewest health and safety risks. So here are some indoor fireplace safety tips from the American Academy of Pediatrics to protect you and your family.
- Have adequate ventilation. Keep a window cracked as your fire is burning, and make sure the damper or flue is open until the embers are completely out. Look for animal nests and other blockages in the chimney.
- Use dry, aged wood. This produces less smoke and soot in wood-burning fireplaces. Plus, using smaller pieces of wood also results in less smoke.
- Clean ashes from previous fires. A thicker layer of ash makes a fire smoke more.
- Have a professional inspect your fireplace and chimney annually. And look for red flags every time you use it.
- Keep the area around your fireplace clear. Install safety screens if you have kids or pets, and keep fireplace tools out of their reach.
- Never leave a fire unattended. Make sure it is completely out before going to bed or leaving for an extended period.
- Keep a fire extinguisher nearby. Plus, install smoke and carbon monoxide detectors. Verify regularly that they’re all functional.
So should you ditch your dreams of curling up next to a cozy fire on a cold night? Not necessarily. As long as you know the health and safety risks, you can weigh the pros and cons for your individual situation and decide which type of fireplace is right for you.