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Can fire pits and bonfires affect your health?

This summer, many of us are looking forward to family reunions, parties and casual backyard get-togethers with friends. In picturing those events, you may be imagining getting cozy around a bonfire or fire pit after sundown, maybe toasting marshmallows or making s’mores. What you’re probably not be imagining is the danger you may be posing to yourself and others.

Are bonfires bad for your health?

The smoke from an open flame affects everybody who breathes it. It contains wood tars, gases, soot, carbon monoxide, dioxins, volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and other fine particles, which can go deep into the lungs. Occasional exposure is fine for most people, but those with asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), including emphysema, should always be careful around a bonfire or fire pit.

“We see more of our patients in the summer months, particularly patients with asthma and COPD, who may experience exacerbations of their illness related to smoke exposure as well as other air pollution,” says Charles Hartley, M.D., a Piedmont pulmonologist. “The fine particulate matter component of wood smoke also represents a risk for cardiovascular disease, including arrhythmias, heart attacks and strokes.”

Children are also susceptible, Dr. Hartley adds, “for a number of reasons, including the fact that their respiratory systems are not mature until their mid-20s and therefore any injury that occurs in the developing lung may result in impaired lung function that never fully recovers, and the child carries such reduced lung function into adulthood. Additionally, children breathe more air per unit weight than do adults and therefore would breathe in a greater volume of wood smoke or other pollution.”

Bonfire and fire pit safety

So, how can you enjoy a summertime blaze safely?

Don’t sit too close. Your first priority is to sit where you’re not breathing the smoke directly. Then, position yourself as far from the flames as you can while still enjoying the warmth.

“The heat from the fire itself may be harmful, as it can cause damage to the surface lining of the lower respiratory tract—placing the patient at risk for superimposed viral and perhaps even bacterial infections,” says Dr. Hartley.

If your face or hands feel intensely hot, you’re too close.

Use the right kind of wood. While it’s tempting to throw in scrap wood, old papers and other products that contain chemicals, it’s best to use untreated wood that has been well-seasoned for six months to a year and kept dry. This will reduce the amount of smoke your fire produces. Properly dried firewood is often darker in color, has cracks in the end grain, and makes a hollow sound when thumped against another hard surface.

Think ahead. Choose a calm day where there is little to no wind. If winds are blowing at more than 20 miles per hour, build your fire another day. And use smaller pieces of wood to build smaller fires that will burn hotter and more completely.

Dr. Hartley says, “Burning wood in a way that promotes complete combustion—that is, small hot fires as opposed to large smoldering ones—will minimize the amount of harmful smoke.”

He adds that you may want to consider artificial fire logs, which are made from recycled materials and produce significantly fewer fine particle emissions and carbon monoxide than does natural wood.

Keep an eye on children. Kids need close supervision around fires. Instruct them on fire safety, which should include keeping their distance from the flames and limiting their exposure to the wood smoke.

Don’t use gasoline or other accelerants to start your fire. Accelerants can cause fires to flare up or rage out of control quickly, and they also release toxins into the air. And keep a bucket of water or a hose nearby. That way, you’ll be ready to act if the flames spread or get out of control.

Consider the environment. You shouldn’t have a fire when air pollution health advisories have been issued in your area. The Georgia government’s Ambient Air Monitoring Program gives air quality updates for the Atlanta, Columbus and Macon areas.

Following these tips will help you enjoy your summer fire experiences, make cleanup easier and help reduce smoke and pollutants. And if you need to make an appointment with a Piedmont physician? Save time, book online.

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