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Fireplace Hazards & Safety Tips

Those of us in Chicago know how brutal our Midwestern winters can be; frigid and to the bone. We all rush home to strip out of layers, find something warm to drink and cozy up next to our fireplace to melt away the icy weather. However, it is important to remember that your cozy fireplace could be hazardous to your health if not maintained properly.

If you are lucky enough to have a fireplace in your home, there are a few things you should know about smoke, its effects to your home and hazards to your health.

What exactly makes up wood smoke?

The smoke created by burning wood is made up of a mixture of gases and fine particles (particle pollution, particle matter or PM). Wood smoke also contains a number of toxic pollutants, such as: benzene, formaldehyde, acrolein, and PAHs (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons).

According to the EPA, less smoke is created when wood is burned efficiently – using an EPA certified wood stove as well as dry, seasoned wood.

What are the health effects of wood smoke?

There’s something just so comforting about about the aroma of burning wood in air, sadly – it’s not that great for you, especially indoors. The biggest threat to your health comes from the fine particles found in the smoke that are so microscopic that they can get into your eyes and lungs, which could lead to a spectrum of health issues ranging from a runny nose to bronchitis. Those at risk of heart attack, stroke, asthma or heart failure can be triggered by these fine particles.

Who is most at risk?

Though wood smoke can affect everyone, children, teenagers, the elderly and people with lung or heart diseases are most vulnerable to the danger of wood smoke inhalation. New mothers and pregnant women may also want to steer clear of woodsmoke as some studies indicate that they too are at higher risk.

Fireplace Safety Tips

Now that we’ve covered some basics, here are a few easy to follow safety tips that will have your fireplace running smoothly and keep your home’s air clean and safe for your family.

  1. Smoke & Carbon Monoxide Detectors: The EPA has found that nearly 3,000 people die in home fires in the U.S., due mainly to smoke inhalation. Properly install and maintain your smoke detectors, check them regularly and replace the batteries frequently. Smoke & carbon monoxide alarms are among the best forms of early home fire, smoke or carbon monoxide warnings. Precautions save lives!
  2. Crack a Window: This may not always be feasible in Chicago, but if you can crack a window to facilitate ventilation you can help keep your indoor air fresh while also keeping warm.
  3. Open Up: Make sure the flue or damper is opened up before you start your fire. This will help draw more smoke out of your home. You can do this by using a flashlight and looking up. Don’t close them until the embers are completely out.
  4. Pick the Right Wood: The best wood for burning is dry and well ages, it will burn more evenly and produce minimal smoke. Wet or green wood will produce more smoke and add to build up of soot in the chimney. Additionally, smaller pieces of wood on a grate will burn faster and create less smoke as well.
  5. A Clean Chimney is a Safe One: Ashes can build up at the base of your fireplace, always be sure to keep the layer under 1 inch or less. A thicker layer restricts oxygen to the logs, resulting in more smoke.
  6. Have your chimney professionally inspected once a year: If you haven’t used your chimney in sometime, it may still require professional inspection to check for nests or other blockages that could keep the smoke from escaping.
  7. Keep it Clear: The area around your chimney should be clear of anything flammable, such as furniture, drapes, paper products, clothing, and so on. Too close and you could have a catastrophe on your hands!
  8. Watch Carefully: Never ever leave a fire unattended and make sure it’s completely out before leaving your home or going to bed. If you leave the room while the fireplace is hot or still on and have a small child, take them with you.

You can further minimize the worry and the risk of your child burning themselves by installing a safety screen and keeping fireplace tools out of reach, including matches and lighters.

Above all, educate your children as early as possible about the dangers of fire and the heat fires generate.

Winter is when we all want to rush home, warm up and get cozy. What better way to do this than to do so without the worry of house fire, poor indoor air quality or possible health issues? This checklist should help keep your mind at ease as you warm your toes and thaw out!

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