The Hidden Dangers of Backyard Fire Pits and Fire Tables

The Hidden Dangers of Backyard Fire Pits and Fire Tables

Sitting around the Chiminea may evoke primordial comforts, but it’s more like sucking down several cigarettes.

A recent bit of research reported in The Guardian caught my eye. A researcher in Germany hauled in some high-tech monitoring equipment to test air quality in a tiny town of 200 residents. He wanted to know how the use of wood smoke affects air quality in a rural village. Does it add up to a major negative for health? 

What he found should give pause to every suburbanite who dreams of putting a wood-burning fire pit or Chiminea on the back deck.

Don’t do it.

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I’ve written repeatedly about the dangers of wood stoves and wood-burning fireplaces. The smoke they produce is dangerous and cumulative, with particles perfectly sized to lodge in human lungs.

This new research puts that warning in bold. Communities of all sizes are vulnerable to lung damage from wood or other fossil fuel burners.

Researchers discovered that particle pollution from wood and coal burning was significantly higher than in surrounding areas, particularly during weekends. This pollution consists of fine particulate matter and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, known carcinogens. The cancer risk from these pollutants in Melpitz mirrored that of major European cities like Athens and Florence, highlighting a widespread issue not confined to urban environments.

The article notes that similar findings have emerged from rural areas in Slovenia and Ireland, with different type of carbon-heavy fossil fuels, a new study of women exposed to wood smoke found some dire impacts:

“During an average 11.3 years of follow-up, 347 medically confirmed lung cancer cases accrued. Overall, 62.3 % of the study population reported the presence of an indoor wood-burning fireplace/stove at their longest-lived adult residence and 20.6 % reported annual usage of ≥30 days/year.”

In the UK, as in the U.S., the proportion of rural homes burning wood and coal can be double that of cities, suggesting a significant underestimation of rural air pollution and its impacts.

It’s not just outdoor smoke that’s toxic. Indoor burning of wood, coal, or peat has been shown to have serious Cognitive and Cancer Risks. A study in the United States found a 43% increase in lung cancer risk for homes heated with wood stoves or fireplaces, emphasizing the gravity of the issue.

Despite these findings, public awareness about the dangers of domestic burning remains low. Global Action Plan advocates for increased consumer education, including health warning labels for stoves and solid fuels, akin to tobacco product warnings. This approach aims to mitigate health risks by informing choices around domestic heating.

Eco-Friendly Fire Pit Options

The fire pit product arena is a big one. Clearly, any messages about air pollution are being drowned out in a sea of slick ads of people hanging out with microbrews open on the deck. 

Different products produce more or less air pollution. For example, you can find products that burn other fuels.

And although I’m not a big fan of gas appliances, gas-fueled outdoor fireplaces might be the one place I’d make an exception. Burning a little fossil fuel for entertainment is preferable to dementia, lung disease, and asthma for suburban families.

Frankly, I think fire pits are just part of a much larger problem of urban and suburban air pollution. In the Northeast, especially, heating oil is still burned in many homes. Put two homes in proximity and you’re sharing carcinogenic fumes for half the year.

Publisher’s Note: This content is made possible by our Today’s Homeowner Campaign Sponsors: Whirlpool Corporation. Whirlpool Corporation takes sustainability seriously, in both their products and their operations. Learn more about building and buying homes that are more affordable and less resource intensive.