Backyard fire pits have become the latest must-have feature.
It was the topic of conversation by my pool yesterday with my snowbird neighbors now pouring in Florida from New England.
My neighbors were all telling me that with fall setting in, many like to extend their time outdoors by sitting around a backyard fire pit until they can come back to their winter retreat here in the warmer climate. They did admit that even though it may be fun—it is not good for the environment, especially during times when air quality is already poor.
One man admitted, he only stays near the fire pit to keep warm while his is sucking on a cigarette. His wife was hoping with the colder temps, it would cause him to smoke less because it was getting too cold to go outside and better still she was hoping that he would quit the nasty addiction.
Of course, all this chit chat on this subject prompted me to do some research on the topic since I have many friends from New England that love fire pits. I, personally don’t like them. I hate those sparks flying out of the pit and onto your clothes causing holes in your clothing! And, why would I want to sit and freeze in 30 degree temps in the first place when I could be indoors enjoying the warmth of a cozy home and a cup of tea.
While researching this topic, it was hard to assess the larger impact of backyard fire pits on local or regional air quality, but no one questions the fact that breathing in wood smoke can be irritating if not downright harmful. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), so-called fine particles are the most dangerous components of wood smoke from a health perspective, as they “can get into your eyes and respiratory system, where they can cause health problems such as burning eyes, runny nose and illnesses such as bronchitis.”
Fine particles also aggravate chronic heart and lung diseases, and have been linked to premature deaths in those already suffering from such afflictions. As such, the EPA advises that anyone with congestive heart failure, angina, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), emphysema or asthma should steer clear of wood smoke in general. Children’s exposure to wood smoke should also be limited, as their respiratory systems are still developing and they breathe more air (and air pollution) per pound of body weight than adults. Also, not good for pets.
The Washington State Department of Ecology reports that about 10 percent of the wintertime air pollution statewide can be attributed to fine particles from wood smoke coming out of wood burning stoves. While a wood stove may be a necessary evil as a source of interior heat, there is no excuse for lighting up a backyard fire pit during times when you could be creating health issues for your neighbors.
Another potential risk to using a backyard fire pit is sparking a forest fire. Some communities that are surrounded by forestland voluntarily institute seasonal burn bans so that residents won’t inadvertently start a forest fire while they are out enjoying their backyard fire pits. If you live in one of these areas, you probably already know it and would be well advised to follow the rules.
If you must light that backyard fire pit, take some precautions to limit your friends’ and family’s exposure to wood smoke. One of my neighbors from Maine stated that The Maine Bureau of Air Quality recommends using only seasoned firewood and burning it in a way that promotes complete combustion—small, hot fires are better than large smoldering ones—to minimize the amount of harmful smoke.
I already know my New England friends will not enjoy this post. But it is what it is. I care about your lungs.
The moral of the story: If you need to burn, burn responsibly.