Backyard Firepit Smoke: A Health Hazard?

Dear EarthTalk: Now that summer is coming, my neighbors will be firing up their backyard firepit again, and I’m wondering if the wood smoke drifting in my open windows is a health hazard for my family and if I have any standing to require them to refrain?

—Mitch Brasky, Reno, NV

With summer approaching, many of us are eagerly anticipating the first night we can gather with loved ones under the stars around the backyard firepit. But neighbors might have not-so-warm feelings about wood smoke entering their yards and homes. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), wood smoke is a complex mixture of gases and microscopic particles, and when these microscopic particles get into your eyes and respiratory system, they can cause health problems such as burning eyes, runny nose, and bronchitis.

Better Backyard Firepit Etiquette

firepit sml 400x267 Backyard Firepit Smoke: A Health Hazard?

Exposure to wood smoke can cause health problems such as burning eyes, runny nose, and bronchitis — and can aggravate pre-existing heart and respiratory conditions. Credit: Nautical9, FlickrCC

As part of its “Burn Wise” program, EPA warns that people who have heart or lung disease, such as congestive heart failure, angina, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, emphysema or asthma, should especially limit their exposures to wood smoke. If you’re concerned about smoke emitting from a neighbor’s fire pit, speak to your neighbor about the matter. If the smoke remains an issue, contact your local health or fire department to determine further action.

If you’re in the market to buy a firepit and would like to avoid having smoke drift into your neighbor’s yard or home, some models are specially designed to reduce smoke output. The American-made Backyard Firefly firepit, for example, utilizes a vertical design that causes the smoke to be combusted in the fire and the remainder to rise vertically, reducing air pollution by over 50 percent from conventional campfires. There are also a multitude of beautifully designed natural gas firepits currently available. Natural gas firepits won’t produce smoke, will instantly light and won’t have to be cleaned like wood-burning firepits that accumulate ash and soot residue.

Is Fake Wood Safer?

If you already own a wood-burning backyard firepit, you can replace conventional wood with certain varieties of Duraflame Logs. Duraflame Stax logs are shaped like split wood and burn with the same charred appearance and crackling sounds of a wood fire, but with half the hazardous air pollutants of an equivalent wood fire. Duraflame Campfire Roasting Logs create hot coals safe for roasting marshmallows, hot dogs or cooking other campfire foods and produce 60 percent less particulate emissions than an equivalent wood fire. No trees are cut down to produce these logs and they are made of 100 percent renewable resources.

For those who own a wood-burning backyard firepit and would like to continue using conventional chopped wood, the EPA Burn Wise program advises to use only properly dried wood, because wet wood can create excessive smoke. To allow wood to properly dry, stack wood away from buildings on rails in a single row with the split side down. Cracked ends on the wood typically means its dry enough to burn, or you can purchase a moisture meter to test the moisture level in the wood. “Moisture meters that allow you to test the moisture level in wood are available in all sizes and can cost as little as $20,” the EPA states. “Properly dried wood should have a reading of 20 percent or less. Dry wood creates a hotter fire. Hotter fires save wood – ultimately saving you time and money.”