Science: Outdoor Fire Pits and Fireplaces

Special Report: Outdoor Fire Pits and Fireplaces: More Second-Hand Smoke

Outdoor fire pits and fireplaces are a growing pollution source all over the United States. They are popular and inexpensive items at many retail stores. What is not inexpensive is the cost of wood smoke pollution: every pound of wood burned costs society $2.00 in health expense (Hall-Fairley). We are receiving more and more reports from victims all over the country and even in such an unexpected places as Key West, Florida.

There is no safe place or time of year that vulnerable people can avoid this deadly pollution. These open fire pits expose the owners and their guests to even more pollution than a fireplace or tobacco smoke. (Each fire will emit close to one pound of smoke pollution, with 90% being in the deadly smaller than one micron range.)

There have been all kinds of excuses made to justify wood heat that have obscured the facts that as many as 30,000 Americans could prematurely die each year from wood smoke inhalation and that "wood smoke could produce similar effects on p53, phospho-p53, and MDM2 protein expression in the human genes as tobacco. It is important to consider wood smoke exposure as a possible risk factor for the development of lung cancer in nonsmoker subjects (Barclay-Delgado)."

What we know about the dangers of tobacco smoke well applies to wood smoke. Wood smoke is chemically active in the body 40 times longer than tobacco smoke (Pryor). It is 12 times more carcinogenic than tobacco smoke (Lewtas) and lowers the body's defense mechanisms for fighting off infections. Just one hour of exposure can lower immune defense 25 to 40 percent (Zelikoff). (See for Fact Sheets, Wood Smoke/Tobacco Comparison charts and other backup material.)

In underdeveloped countries it is recognized that outdoor fires significantly shorten the average human life span. It seems foolish to consider wood fires as a lifestyle enhancement. Users of these devices are making an unfortunate health choice for the whole community. The perception is that these are perfectly legal and desirable lifestyle-enhancing devices.

There have been pure air rights, laws and edicts on the law books since very early times that protect people from smoke, vapors, odors and gases. Where is our common sense to step forward and educate the public about the dangers of wood smoke and ban gratuitous polluting devices?

The time to act is now. Educate your town council, your air district, your neighbors. Use the 35 megabytes of scientific information on our site for free by giving out the web site: ""


This rusting hulk of a grill is sold on the web, for an "upscale lifestyle".  Many naive people will be swayed to 'need one', with no thought to the environmental damage they will spew around themselves.

The Hearth, Patio and Barbecue Association, a trade group, admits "It is recognized that a measurable part of the current problem in air emissions is from wood burning." Yet, in the next breath ... "The market for hearth products is huge, and mainly untapped. With the help of the (US) EPA, the time may be right to dramatically increase the level of hearth product sales. The market place is wide open." "Enormous Opportunity", by James E. Houck and Carter Keithley, September 2004 Issue of Hearth and Home, a marketing publication for the industry.

The trade group lists 'Ten Good Reasons To Burn Wood" on their web site. They say, "It is a good thing to burn wood." They justify wood burning as "carbon neutral." "After all," they say, "the global warming gas carbon dioxide would go into the atmosphere eventually over tens of years, as the wood breaks down anyway, it is therefore harmless to emit it all in an hour."

Why do we recognize forest fires as a major global warming contributor but remain dishonest in our assessment of our individual contributions to the problem?

New research indicates that the tiny black airborne soot particles themselves cause local climate change. They cause the clouds to heat and dissipate early in the day. They 'burn up" so they cannot release their moisture as rain. In addition, later in the day without this protective cloud cover the earth heats up more than it would. (NASA-Koren, 2006)

Mary J. Rozenberg, June 2007

"Sorry Lack of Outrage Over Fire Pits"

By Patty Fisher
Mercury News: Mon, Sep. 04, 2006

`"Come outside and we'll inaugurate my new fire pit,'' my neighbor said.

We carried our drinks and appetizers out to the terrace, where a deep bowl in the middle of a metal table was stacked with firewood. It looked so cozy, so inviting.

But as we sat around the table, the smoke burned my eyes and I kept moving my chair in a futile effort to stay upwind. Eventually we all gave up and went inside.

This got me thinking. Wood smoke is such a hazard that most local cities have banned new wood-burning indoor fireplaces. It's a major source of air pollution, and those fragrant fumes are filled with lethal carbon monoxide and dioxin.

Legal pollution.

Yet outdoor fireplaces are legal. In fact, they're the latest thing in patio toys. Isn't anyone bothered by that?

Apparently not.

Sales of built-in outdoor fireplaces have more than doubled in the past two years, according to the Hearth, Patio and Barbecue Association, a trade group. Portable fire pits are everywhere. Local Target stores couldn't keep them in stock this summer. Smith & Hawken, the upscale home and garden store, has five models, including a huge copper caldron for $459.

``People love the idea of gathering around the fire,'' said Noelle Smith of Smith & Hawken. ``It's instinctual.''

Instinctual, yes, with the accent on the stink.

I called the Bay Area Air Quality Management District, the local pollution police. I figured those folks would be all over this burning issue.

I was wrong.

``I can't say it's even on our radar screen,'' said district spokesman Jack Colbourn. ``These are brand new. We don't have any regulations or even model regulations.''

Colbourn said the current wisdom is that wood smoke is more of a pollution problem in the winter, when cold night air traps smoke near the ground. People tend to use outdoor fireplaces in the summer, so it's no big deal, he said.

No big deal? Spewing all that dioxin and other gunk?

I asked Mary Tucker of the San Jose Environmental Services Department how concerned she is about fire pits. She, too, dismissed them as a minor problem: ``It's not as bad as all of us using our cars on Spare the Air days.''

Ron Geary, Mountain View's building official, said fire pits are indeed a concern.

``It's all the same pollution,'' he said, ``whether you throw oak logs on your backyard fire pit or your living room fireplace.''

So far, though, he hasn't heard complaints -- except from me.

Smoke is smoke.

But Margo Sidener has complained. ``Personally, I'm outraged,'' said Sidener, who's with Breathe California, which spun off from the American Lung Association. ``However you look at it, smoke is bad for lungs. People with asthma are affected any time of year.''

She suggests that if people want to stay warm outside on chilly evenings, they put on jackets.

Even her group, though, hasn't done anything to raise alarms with the public.

Why not? Isn't this California, always on the cutting edge of environmental causes? The state that may soon ticket parents for smoking with kids in the car? Surely, when folks understand the dangers of fire pits, they'll be marching on Sacramento, building bonfires on the Capitol steps to see how the lawmakers like breathing toxic smoke. Maybe Rob Reiner could get behind this one.

On the other hand, perhaps fire pits are just a fad that will burn itself out.

The folks at Smith & Hawken say the copper caldron makes an excellent ice bucket.
Contact Patty Fisher at or (650) 688-7510.

© 2006 and wire service sources. All Rights Reserved.

Published by The San Jose Mercury News.

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