As winter wreaks havoc throughout Humboldt County, it’s admittedly unsatisfying to argue against the coziness of a night spent around the fireplace with family and friends. Depending on state and local ordinances, however, regulations may limit the use of these and other wood-fired heating sources, particularly in new homes. While this may seem inconvenient for those who prefer the traditional ambiance of a crackling fire or wood-burning stove, it is essential to understand the health and environmental reasoning that underlie these regulations.
From a public health perspective, wood smoke contains fine particulate matter and other pollutants that can harm human health, particularly for vulnerable populations such as children and the elderly. Specifically, wood-burning heaters, stoves, and fireplaces can exacerbate pre-existing health issues, including asthma and heart disease. It can be so harmful that the collective consequences of lingering wood-stove pollution (indoors and outdoors) are, in some cases, more damaging than second-hand smoke from cigarettes. For example, the EPA notes that the lifetime cancer risks from wood smoke are “twelve times greater than that from an equal volume of second-hand tobacco smoke.”
From an environmental perspective, traditional wood-burning heaters are also not the most energy-efficient ways to heat homes and can contribute to climate change by releasing harmful polluters, such as black carbon, into the atmosphere. While the degrees of impact vary, depending on where and how one sources their wood (i.e., cutting live carbon-sequestering trees vs. dead snags, etc.), it’s fair to say that there are cleaner, healthier, and more environmentally sound ways to heat your home than wood-burning fireplaces.
A recent EcoNews Report highlighted the public health dangers associated with gas stoves in the kitchen, particularly their potential to release harmful chemicals into the air. However, it is important to note that gas fireplaces are generally designed with better ventilation systems and are less likely to cause indoor air pollution than the gas stoves mentioned in the report. While gas-burning heaters are cleaner and more efficient alternatives to their more traditional wood-burning counterparts, they are also far from perfect. Gas-burning heaters still release carbon, reduce air quality, and the various steps associated with supply-side sourcing are also emission-heavy (think leakage, transportation, refinement, etc.).
Ideally, we will look to all-electric fireplaces, heat pumps, hot cocoas, and good company to provide a similar fire-side ambiance while protecting ourselves and others. And luckily for us, various incentives, such as from California Climate Investments and the Inflation Reduction Act, are in place to encourage this transition. If that’s still a hard no for you, consider primarily relying on electric heat throughout the year and reserving those cozy, fireside nights for a special occasion.