Hard as it may be to believe, the fireplace — long considered a trophy — is acquiring a social stigma as concerns grow about pollution and health problems caused by the smoke.
Winsome Brown, an actress and writer, and her husband, Claude Arpels, own an enviable apartment in TriBeCa worthy of publication in an interior design magazine. The apartment — which is, in fact, being considered for an issue of Elle Decor — has maple floors, casement windows and all the character one would expect to find in a building that was once a factory.
But one of the features that many people in the city would pay a premium for is something the owners don’t like: the fireplace.
“A wood-burning fire in the city is a ridiculous luxury — we would never have put it in ourselves,” said Arpels, grandson of one of the founders of Van Cleef & Arpels and the former managing partner of Netto Collection, a baby furniture company bought by Maclaren. “In the city, it doesn’t make sense to burn fires, because it’s inefficient and it’s polluting.”
Hard as it may be to believe, the fireplace — long considered a trophy, particularly in a city like New York — is acquiring a social stigma. Among those who aspire to be environmentally responsible, it is joining the ranks of bottled water and big houses.
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“The smoke from a fire smells very nice,” said Diane Bailey, a senior scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council in San Francisco. “But it can cause a lot of harm.” The tiny particles, she said, “can cause inflammation and illness, and can cross into the bloodstream, triggering heart attacks” as well as worsening other conditions.
Or as Starre Vartan, a 33-year-old blogger who goes by the name Eco-Chick, put it: “Any time you are burning wood or cow dung, you’ll be creating pollution. It’s like junk food: If you do it once a month, then who cares? But if it’s something you do every day, it’s important that you mitigate it somehow. It’s a hazard.”
Not surprisingly, the green community has been sounding the alarm for some time. For the last several years, TheDailyGreen.com, an online magazine, has advocated replacing all wood-burning fireplaces with electric ones; an article published in September by Shireen Qudosi, entitled “Breathe Easier With a Cleaner Fireplace,” argued that there is no such thing as an environmentally responsible fire: “Switching out one type of wood for another is still use of a natural resource that otherwise could have been spared,” Qudosi wrote. And last fall, an article on the website GreenBlizzard.com, “Cozy Winter Fires — Carbon Impact,” called wood-burning fires “a direct pollutant to you, your family and your community.”
Organizations like the American Lung Association (www.lungusa.org) are issuing warnings as well: The group recommends that consumers avoid wood-burning fires altogether, citing research that names wood stoves and fireplaces as major contributors to particulate-matter air pollution in much of the United States.
Wood smoke contains some of the same particulates as cigarette smoke, said Dr. Norman H. Edelman, the chief medical officer for the American Lung Association, as well as known carcinogens like aldehydes; it has also been linked to respiratory problems in young children. “We now know from lots of studies that wood smoke is very, very irritating,” Edelman said. “It contains a lot of irritating gases and it also contains damaging particulate matter. It’s probably not good for anybody, and it’s especially bad for anybody who has a chronic respiratory problem.” So the association strongly advises people not to use the traditional fireplace, he said.
Certainly, there are many who consider this eco-overkill. After all, in Greek mythology, fire was a gift from the divine, stolen from Zeus by Prometheus and handed over to shivering humanity. What could be more natural than sitting around a crackling fire on a winter night, at a campsite in the Berkshires or in a Brooklyn brownstone?
But growing concerns about the air pollution and health problems caused by smoke from wood-burning fires are prompting a number of areas across the country to pass laws regulating them.
“A lot of municipalities are taking action,” said Bailey, adding that the weather-based measures called burn bans are perhaps the most widespread restriction. When the weather is cold and still or pollution is high, localities like the Bay Area in California, Seattle (www.pscleanair.org), Denver and Albuquerque restrict residential wood-burning. These measures can be mandatory or voluntary, and can become more restrictive as air quality declines.
So far, most of the wood-burning regulations tend to be out West. A few examples: Idaho offers tax incentives to people who replace uncertified wood stoves with “greener” ones; San Joaquin County in California forbids selling a home unless its wood stove is replaced with an EPA-certified one; and Palo Alto and other municipalities in California prohibit wood-burning fireplaces or stoves in new construction.
Perhaps not coincidentally, sales of wood-burning appliances dropped to 235,000 in 2009 from 800,000 in 1999, according to the Hearth, Patio and Barbecue Association. And the Brick Industry Association, which promotes brick construction, reports that roughly 35,000 masonry fireplaces were installed in the United States in 2009, compared to 80,000 in 2005.
Certainly those numbers reflect the economic slowdown, but they may also be affected by growing ambivalence to wood-burning fires. In any case, most fireplaces are used far too infrequently to cause any real damage to the environment, said Stephen Sears, the vice president of marketing and member services for the Brick Industry Association, voicing an opinion shared by some.
In the East, he wrote in an e-mail, air pollution is worst in the summer, when fireplaces aren’t in use, and in the West the regulations are an overreaction: “Because it is not realistic to test each unique masonry fireplace in a laboratory” to evaluate its emissions, he noted, “it is easier for some municipalities to arbitrarily limit” the use of all wood-burning fireplaces.
Karen Soucy, an associate publisher at a nonprofit environmental magazine, isn’t swayed by that argument. She refuses to enter a home where wood has been burned, even infrequently.
Soucy, 46, blames fumes from a wood fire for sending her to the emergency room 25 years ago with a severe asthma attack. She had been staying at a friend’s house in Stowe, Vt., for about a day, she said, when her lungs seized up. She was taken to a hospital in an ambulance, and got two shots of adrenalin; the doctors blamed her friend’s cat.
“It was only later, working with a team of allergy doctors and pulmonologists, did we determine the culprit to be the wood-burning fumes from the various fireplaces,” Soucy said.
Now her husband scouts out any place they go in advance, to be sure it’s free of fireplaces, and she passes up countless dinners and parties. “I’m the one who feels guilty for always being the one to decline invitations or for making people go out of their way to clean their home and I still decline,” she said. “The smell lingers on everything.”
For those who still want to build a fire, there are several ways to make it more environmentally friendly, experts say, including using an energy-efficient wood or pellet stove certified by the EPA or retrofitting a fireplace with an insert (a device, usually made of iron or steel, that fits into the mouth of a fireplace and enables it to heat more efficiently).
Brown and Arpels’ solution was to install an energy-efficient wood stove in one of the three fireplaces at their farm in Chatham, N.Y. The surrounding countryside is filled with downed trees that would decompose anyway, Brown, 38, said, and Arpels, 41, gets some exercise from splitting the logs.
“Basically we’re not transporting things using oil from across the world to our house,” she added. “We think this is pretty good, environmentally.”
Wickham Boyle, 60, a writer and consultant for nonprofit arts organizations, installed a soapstone stove in her Hudson Valley house after a saleswoman explained that it had a catalytic combustor that converts smoke into water and carbon dioxide. Guests sometimes ask her if she feels guilty about burning wood, she said, but she recites a laundry list of the stove’s high-efficiency features, explaining to them that the environmental impact is negligible due to the combustor, and that she mainly uses fallen wood cleared from her land or other properties nearby.
Of course, not everyone can afford such a stove, which can cost upward of $2,000, including installation (Boyle paid $3,000 for hers).
Converting a wood-burning fireplace to gas can be just as expensive, and while electric fireboxes are cheaper — just a few hundred dollars — most consider them a poor substitute for a real fire, since there is no flame. So some people are simply using their fireplaces less often — or not at all.
Sally Treadwell, a 51-year-old public relations executive in Boone, N.C., said nothing makes her happier than building a fire on a cold winter night. But most of the time she doesn’t, she said, because she feels too guilty about the damage it may do to the environment.
“We’re in the Appalachian Mountains, and I know what pollution does to us all,” Treadwell said. “I very definitely limit fires. I’d have one every single winter night if I didn’t have some guilt!”
When she builds a fire, she should use only seasoned dry wood, according to the EPA website, because it burns hotter and releases less smoke. And the firewood for sale at the corner bodega — or even the wood supplied by a delivery service — might not be seasoned, even if it is advertised as such, said David R. Brown, a public health toxicologist in Connecticut. To ensure that the wood is dry, he added, it should be stored for at least six months before being burned.
There is also the fire-building technique to consider. Most people don’t realize that the fire should be kept hot (with high, visible flames) for the first 20 minutes, David R. Brown said, so that the chimney will heat up and the smoke will disperse; otherwise, the smoke tends to drift into the house, causing an increased health hazard.
Even the greenest of the green, though, sometimes throw caution to the winds when it comes to wood-burning fires. Sue Duncan, a 52-year-old landscaper in Austin, Texas, uses native, drought-tolerant plants in her landscaping work and hasn’t thrown away an aluminum can since 1974, she said. She has installed a programmable thermostat and fluorescent lighting in her 1,600-square-foot house and has a rainwater collection system out back.
But somehow, she still hasn’t gotten around to retrofitting her fireplace. Every time she builds a fire it causes “inner conflict,” she said. “It’s a guilty pleasure.”