ADVICE: Is my neighbour's fire pit a health hazard?

It's not just the smoke. Mould on firewood is actually quite common

Maja Begovic 4 minute read June 11, 2021
fire pit unhealthy

A reader worries about cough and sore throat when her neighbour lights up the fire pit. Getty

Dear Asking for a Friend,

My neighbour burns wood in his fire pit, mostly at night. When the wind blows our way, it’s impossible to leave our windows open. We can’t enjoy fresh air in our bedroom because it stinks up the room, causes us to cough and we wake up with sore throats. Our by-law permits it. We’ve read that wood when burning releases mould spores, which can cause allergies. Can you verify this to be a fact? We would gladly by him a propane burning fire pit. It would be more civilized. 

Signed, Dying for Fresh Air

Dear Dying for Fresh Air,

The smell of burning firewood typically conjures up fond memories of sweet romance, good company and S’mores — but rarely do we think of the health risks.

Mould on firewood is actually quite common. Moisture and warm temperatures create the perfect storm for mould to thrive, and exposure to it can lead to symptoms such as chronic cough, red, itchy eyes, a sore throat, nasal congestion and blurred vision. Mould exposure may also trigger asthma in some people. Plus, mould from the outdoors can travel into your home through open windows, vents, heating or air conditioning system, and stick to clothing and your pets.

Dr. Timothy Vander Leek, associate clinical professor for the Division of Clinical Immunology and Allergy, in the Department of Pediatrics at the University of Alberta, and president of the Canadian Society of Allergy and Clinical Immunology (CSACI) suggests that it is unlikely that the burning of firewood will cause the release of mould spores, as the heat of the fire would likely burn up those spores.

But he warns that “handling firewood that is decomposing, including chopping, carrying and disturbing it could cause mould spores to become airborne.” According to Vander Leek, “these can be inhaled, and mould spores are both irritating to the airways, but also can trigger allergic symptoms in those allergic to moulds.”

Multiple studies confirm that “mould exposure during the first year of life may increase risk of childhood asthma,” and there is also evidence that suggests that people who are immunocompromised may be at “an increased risk for lung infection” when exposed to mould.

Now back to your neighbour and the possibility that his fire pit is putting you at risk of mould exposure. There is no way to know the condition of the firewood unless you ask him, but if the firewood is stacked on pallets, if it’s exposed to plenty of sunlight, if it’s covered by a tarp or a rack cover, and if the sides are exposed so that air can flow properly, chances are that he is well-versed in mould prevention — or at the very least has inadvertently done the right thing. Mould thrives in dark, damp and wet conditions, and if cut off from those sources, it can’t survive.

That said, if the smoky stink is still bothering you, go ahead with your generous offer to gift him a propane burning fire pit — he might be thrilled. Or, he might not. A lot depends on your relationship. There are other options too like using non-conventional logs that look like wood — they even crackle when they are burning — but with less air pollution. Plus, some brands create coals that are safe for roasting marshmallows and hot dogs.

If your neighbour is not on board with these suggestions, perhaps he would consider making sure the wood he is using is properly dried, since wet wood creates a lot of smoke. There are even moisture meters that measure the level of dampness in wood — 20 per cent or less is recommended.

Your point about protecting your health is a good one. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), smoke from wood is mixture of gases and microscopic particles that can get into your eyes and respiratory system causing burning eyes, a runny nose, and bronchitis. In fact, the EPA recommends that people who have heart or lung disease, such as congestive heart failure, angina, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, emphysema or asthma, limit exposure to wood smoke. Perhaps a discussion around health risks may dampen your neighbour’s enthusiasm for flames.

If, after all of this, your attempt at a resolution goes up in flames, it might be worth a call to your local public health unit or fire department to get advice on how to proceed.

Is there something about health that you (or a friend, wink, wink) have always wondered about, but are too embarrassed to ask? Send a note to info@healthing.ca. We promise your ‘friend’s’ secret – and identity – is safe with us!

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