Originally published on October 25, 2019
Most of us don’t need fires to cook our food or keep us warm. But they’re a tradition, and a way to unwind with friends and family, and maybe make s’mores around the flames. But there’s a another side to popular backyard fire pits: the health effects of wood smoke.
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Just ask Carol Wivell. She moved to her home in McKeesport, south of Pittsburgh, about seven years ago.
“I would just like to emphasize the fact that I do love to work in my yard, when I feel well enough to do it,” Wivell said. “Wood smoke makes that difficult.”
Wivell Is proud of her front garden, and loves having a green space of her own. She moved some landscaping stones, and plants, like hostas, to her yard from her previous house in Bellevue, another community in Allegheny County.
Wivell is in her 60s, and retired on disability. She lived in Bellevue for 20 years, and didn’t want to move, or take on a new mortgage. At her old house, she liked to keep the windows open to let the breeze blow through.
“I had a window in the front, and a window in the back of each room of that house. And it was perfectly situated for airflow,” Wivell said. “When the wood burning started, it would get into my house. And once it’s in your house, it’s too late to go close the window.”
Wood smoke burns her eyes, and gives her a sore throat. Her ears become congested, and the medicine she takes to help these symptoms makes it hard for her to sleep at night.
“You are not the problem if you’re bothered by breathing wood smoke. You need to speak up.”
She wrote to the local newspaper, and went to the town council with her story. She says she and others who had similar concerns about backyard fires weren’t being heard. Then things got ugly between Wivell and her neighbors.
“I was just so frazzled everyday,” she said. “I couldn’t open my windows anymore. I said, ‘I gotta get out of here.’”
According to Wivell, things in McKeesport are a little bit better. She wears a mask to cut the grass when she smells woodsmoke in her neighborhood. Though she says her next door neighbor has agreed to respect her wishes that he not use his backyard fire pit, Wivell and her cats mostly enjoy the outdoors from behind a closed window. She has air conditioning now.
“You are not the problem if you’re bothered by breathing wood smoke,” Wivell said. “ You need to speak up.”
For Wivell, the issue has made her an activist.
Ultrafine Particles Penetrate Deep into Lungs
Sue Seppi, with the Group Against Smog and Pollution, says the health effects of wood smoke is both a neighborhood and a regional issue.
“For the people in the neighborhood, it may be where they’re getting the highest level of pollution despite the fact that industry overall is putting out tons and tons of pollution,” Seppi said.
Wood smoke contributes to the area’s air quality problem with PM 2.5, or fine particulate pollution, and it contains ultrafine particles.
“The smaller they are, the deeper they’re going to penetrate into your lungs, and even into your blood,” Seppi said.
Tiny particles from wood smoke can get into the cracks around closed windows. According to the USEPA, smoke, even from clean, dry firewood, contains toxins like benzene and formaldehyde, similar to cigarette smoke. It can exacerbate asthma or bring on an attack. Fine particles in wood smoke can also trigger heart attacks or stroke.
Wood smoke is especially dangerous for kids, whose respiratory systems are still developing and breathe more per pound than adults.
Allegheny County Regulations Go Only So Far
In 2015 the Allegheny County Health Department strengthened its rules for open burning in the county, like restricting the size of fires to 3-feet wide by 3-feet long by 2-feet high.
“That’s a bonfire,” Seppi said. “We’d like to see stronger regulations.”
She would like to have open burning banned in areas where houses are close together.
The updated rules for open burning in Allegheny County include a provision that fires must be 15 feet from a neighbor’s property line or public area, and there should be no burning on air quality action days, where pollution levels are already high.
“If I tried to ban it, I’ll be out of my office.”
But according to Jim Kelly, deputy director of environmental health at the Allegheny County Health Department, even these changes were controversial. He visited councils made up of leaders from the 130 municipalities in the county to explain the new rules.
“There was a lot of very curt feedback about the fact that, a lot of the elected officials said, ‘If I tried to ban it, I’ll be out of my office.’ Because you see a lot of these outdoor areas that are being built with the focus being on a fire pit,” Kelly said. “We’re seeing that more and more in these urban settings. It’s becoming quite a public phenomenon.
Pennsylvania allows burning for recreational purposes, and even offers a template for creating an ordinance to regulate the practice. Municipalities within Allegheny County can write and enforce rules stricter than those of the health department. The health department’s own webpage about burning states, “the safest fire for everyone is no fire at all.”
But Kelly says an outright ban would never get through the public process, County Council, and committees necessary to pass it. Instead, the department is focusing on education about the rules and the impacts of wood smoke.
When there’s a complaint, the department’s two field inspectors have the authority and discretion to limit burning, even if residents are following the rules — for example, if a backyard fire is on a hillside, and smoke is directly wafting into a neighbor’s home.
Low Smoke Alternatives
Stacy Offutt lives in Pittsburgh’s Morningside neighborhood, and she wanted a place for her family to gather around the fire outdoors as the final touch for the outdoor renovation on the home they bought last year. She researched and bought a low smoke stove for her patio.
“If we’re going to indulge in a fire, we want to make it as clean and as efficient as possible.”
The stove looks a little like a typical fire ring, but is different by design. Hollow walls, and holes on the inside and outside of the cylinder create an airflow that keeps the smoke down and the flame burning in the center of the ring.
“If we’re going to indulge in a fire, we want to make it as clean and as efficient as possible,” Offutt said as she lit crumpled paper to catch the kindling and logs.
“The first five minutes, there is smoke,” Offutt said. “Then you start to add the wood, and once everything catches, it burns really efficiently. There’s hardly any smoke at all.”
Offutt was skeptical, but she claims it works as advertised.
“It just kind of lengthens the time we can be outside,” she said. “We’re in the middle of the city, but at night, when it’s cold, and you can gather around a fire, no one else is out here. It’s very quiet. It’s very peaceful.”
Offutt hopes her neighbors will appreciate less smokey air, too. Other options that burn cleaner than wood are propane and natural gas, which also are allowed under the county’s regulations.