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Is fireplace smoke second hand smoke?

Original post made by Paulette Kenyon on Dec 29, 2007

After reading about Dublin's ordinance on second hand smoke, I wonder why they only consider cigarette smoke as offensive second hand smoke. Why stop there? Why not go a step further and go after the even more deadly nuisance of fireplace smoke?

Recent letters from a woman who wrote to a few local newspapers complaining about how fireplace smoke makes her horribly ill every winter brought this issue back up for me. I suddenly knew that I wasn't alone in my suffering from fireplace smoke.

Last year, my good friend's son died on Xmas eve from cystic fibrosis, a lung condition. I have no doubts that fireplace smoke makes people with lung problems ill in the winter; and, I wouldn't be surprised if that is what pushed him over the edge.

I've noticed when I take a walk with the dog that I feel worse when I walk by patches of the artificial log smoke than when I smell ordinary wood smoke that doesn't also have the smell of burning garbage mixed in. I went to an allergist to see if I am allergic to fireplace smoke. He told me that fireplace smoke is a toxin; and, that people aren't allergic, that we are suffering genuine responses to a toxin. So, I guess some of us are the canaries in the coal mine.

I wish that people didn't feel the need to have fires in the winter. But, I know that people are almost militant about this issue. Tonight as I write this, my lungs hurt and I feel sick. I couldn't take the dog out today because it was too smoky outside. I don't know how many people suffer from fireplace smoke. Maybe there are only a few of us, maybe thousands. I wish more research would be done on this subject, though; particularly in regards to those artificial logs (that I believe are worse).

This problem for me began about 5 years ago and I have no idea why all of a sudden I have this reaction. But, it has made me sensitive to the difficulties that those who have asthma, emphysema, cystic fibrosis, and other pulmonary disorders must endure.

If cigarette smoke can be considered a public nuisance, than I think it is only reasonable to admit that fireplace smoke is just as injurious if not worse. People can usually escape cigarette smoke, but, people who suffer cannot escape the abundant fireplace smoke that fills the air every winter in the trivalley.

Comments (31)

Posted by Fireplace Lover, a resident of Birdland
on Dec 31, 2007 at 9:55 am

It is sad about your situation but banning fireplaces is probably not going to make it that much better. Part of the reason we light fires in the winter is to conserve money on our heating bill. We save a lot of money but liting a fire and heating our house, not to mention the family time we spend together by the fire. Most people only light fires in the late evening, maybe you can take your dog for a walk during the day when it is warmer or take him to a park where there is no smoke that you are walking past (yes, I know it is in the air but probably less the more you go away from houses.) You also should see a doctor to make sure there is nothing wrong with your health. A sudden onset of all this probably means you should get it checked out.

Like I said, sorry for your situation but having a city deny people to have a fire isn't going to help. Imagine the cost of having to regulate that and the money PG&E is going to make off the heating bills!!

Posted by The Facts, a resident of Another Pleasanton neighborhood
on Dec 31, 2007 at 10:08 am

Just the facts:

Emissions Profile for Alameda County
Source: BAAQMD
Particulate Matter
On- and Off-Road = 40%
Wood Burning = 37%
Metals & Minerals Manufact. = 1%
Commercial Cooking = 12%
Geological Dust(construction, road dust) = 10%

Web Link

Posted by Paulette, a resident of Val Vista
on Jan 3, 2008 at 10:48 am

Thanks Birdland for the response. I do walk my dog in the day and wouldn't go out at night for love or money during these smokey winter months. You'd be surprised how many chimneys are belching out smoke in the middle of the day during the winter. I've heard that chimneys suck the warm air out of the house, leaving only the area directly around the fireplace warm; that it doesn't save energy or not a great deal. Energy saving furnaces really do make a huge difference. But, I know that some wood burning stoves also save energy; and, I'll take your word for it that you, personally, are saving alot of money.

I have seen doctors about this problem. They give me asthma medications, nosesprays, and all kinds of drugs to supposedly make it better. They help a little tiny bit; but, they too have unpleasant side affects. I wonder how many people take medications for this problem?
My dad's side of the family has a history of lung disorders. And, my dad's mother and 5 of his brothers and sisters died from lung disease. My dad isn't allowed to go above a certain elevation anymore. My grandmother never could travel to high elevations. My dad, the youngest, has emphysema; and, he also suffers in the winter.

I understand the fun of sitting around a fireplace in the home; but, like cigarette smoking, your funtime ends of pouring out into the sky and becoming someone elses medical nightmare.
If people could at least try and burn materials that aren't toxic (like plastics, garbage, Xmas wrap, etc) and maybe just cut down on the fires a little, that would be better than nothing. I also would like to see some studies done on those artificial logs and the ones that clean chimneys. If they can clean off the gunk in chimneys, they must be pretty toxic. On the other hand, dirty chimneys make more toxic smoke, from what I understand. So, people who keep their chimneys clean are being better neighbors.

I would like to see stats on how much money people save burning in their fireplaces. Is it worth the cost of making some people's lives miserable or even shortening a neighbor's life, which is a possibility. Why aren't government dollars spent on these kinds of studies, rather than some of the ridiculous things they spend money on? This is pretty basic public health stuff. Someone contacted me through another route, who knows more about air quality issues. Maybe they know. I'll let you know if I find out anything of genuine interest.

I think ordinances are a drag; but, if it means a child with cystic fibrosis has another 5 years tacked onto his life, maybe it's worth it. Rather than ordinances, I'd rather see people just use their common sense and make compromises. I do. I lock myself in the house at night and use medicines I'd rather not take. I'm not outside of people's houses picketing because they have a fire. You can do as you like; I don't bother you.
I just wonder how prevalent this problem is. From the email that lists the particulants, it seems that fireplace smoke is up there with car exhaust. I do live near a freeway soundwall and the sewage plant. When winter comes, the addition of the smoke to the air could be the straw that breaks the camel's back for me. Maybe some neighborhoods have worse air quality than some others.

Posted by aaron, a resident of Highland Oaks
on Jan 3, 2008 at 11:55 am

people complain too much, no-one has any right to say wether or not you can burn a fire, smoke a cigerette, or anything of the sort. i don't walk by a porta porta and say it has to be removed cause it smells. i don't tells people with too much cologne/ perfume they need to wash up. though i have choked harder off bad smelling fragrences than of smoke from a cigerette, pipe, or than a chimney smoke. it sounds like personl problems than social problems. it is upsetting that so many people think there wants, and bigger than others rights. not just of chimneys but of cigerettes as well. it is rediculous. and people need to stop complaing. otherwise you might start getting people trying to elimate the use of fragrences, or care product which have unpoleasant odors. i don't mean to come of as unsensitive, it is simply that people only care about there own interests and wishes. if it's so bad walk around with a mask.

Posted by katee, a resident of Another Pleasanton neighborhood
on Jan 3, 2008 at 2:07 pm

My family occasionally burns logs in the winter, but we have switched to JavaLogs and they are much less irritating. If you burn logs, please check them out ( They are made from recycled coffee grounds (but do not smell like burned coffee) and burn a lot cleaner than Duraflame style logs. They also don't have the lighter fluid smell of Duraflames. Nob Hill on Santa Rita carries them, but Safeway does not. They are a little more expensive, maybe $3-5 more for a whole case. It doesn't solve the problem of air pollution but it does help.

Posted by frank, a resident of Pleasanton Heights
on Jan 3, 2008 at 9:52 pm

Reading this thread invokes all sorts of negative emotions in me. A large one is the extreme lack of understanding by posters of some basic facts supported by sound science regarding energy and toxins.

Fireplaces as a source of heat: fireplaces have been studied and measured for efficiency many decades ago and found to be extremely inefficient. The energy content of wood, when burned, throws out only a small fraction of the total into the house in the form of heat. Most goes up the chimney, wasted. A wood-burning fireplace without glass doors is 10 percent efficient at best. Meanwhile, leaving the damper open when the fire burns down provides an extreme heat leak for the house (especially if there are no closed glass doors). Depending upon how carefully you operate your fireplace (closing the damper, closing the glass doors), it in many cases creates a higher PG&E bill and certainly does not save energy relative to clean burning gas. Furnaces, on the other hand, range from 60 to 90 percent efficiency and are very clean burning. Maybe if you are really careful you save a bit of energy but considerably stink up and poison the neighborhood.

A cast iron, wood burning stove in the center of your room is often much more efficient than a wood-burning fireplace, but also needs to have damper control. How many of you have these stoves?

The completeness of burning of wood and other products (garbage?) in a fireplace or wood stove is very poor, and the smoke going up the chimney contains a large amount of bad things in the form of a host of hydrocarbons, all of which are known carcinogens. These molecules are mostly benzene-ring-containing partially oxidized hydrocarbons. By the way, it is a well known anthropological fact that the women of ancient peoples who cooked indoors with unvented fires (smoke went out of a hole in the room ceiling) had a life span of about thirty years. Can you guess why?

Now all this stuff claimed about saving energy using the fireplace and the family sitting around bonding or something about the rights of cigarette smokers while the massive amounts of carcinogens go up the chimney and lower the life span of the surrounding neighbors is disheartening to read about. Unfortunately, the basic science understanding and critical thinking skills of the average American to which this thread is witness is a shame to our nation. What I'm stating in this post is not opinion, but established fact. If you disagree, I challenge you to research my claims and present rebuttals based upon citations that can be corroborated.

Oh, by the way, here is a portion quoted from a source discussing the famous London air pollution problem...anyone every watch "Mary Poppins"?

Web Link

"The modern field of environmental health owes much to the tragedy that befell Greater London, some 50 years ago this month. From 5 December through 9 December 1952 a heavy, motionless layer of smoky, dusty fumes from the region's million or more coal stoves and local factories settled in the London basin." Walking outside at night in Pleasanton in the winter sometimes makes you think you are living in 1952 London with Mary Poppins and the kids climbing the smoke staircase!!!!!

Posted by Fireplace Lover, a resident of Birdland
on Jan 4, 2008 at 10:16 am

Frank: First off, I said I was understanding to the posters problem and gave some advice that maybe they hadn't thought about. (Which they have) I did not bash her problem nor was I inconsiderate. I see your reports and your statistics and if I had enough time I bet I could find a rebuttal to each and every one of those. Fortunately, I do not see a ban being placed on chimney smoke anytime in the near future, so I will save my time from doing so. There are always two sides to every story. for one have saved money on my PG&E bill, maybe someone there loves me, but that is a proven fact from my bill. People who burn garbage and other stuff in their fireplace are crazy to do so.

Like I said previously, I sympathize with the poster and the problem that she feels fireplace smoke is partial responsible for but I am not going to stop burning a fire in my own home for that reason. I am sure that she is not the only case but according to her, there seems to be a family history with lung problems which could be why she is more sensitive then most to the smoke.

And by the way, my family does bond in the family room with the fireplace instead of sitting the kids on front of the TV or separating the family like many people do. I enjoy a fire, my kids enjoy the fire and we enjoy the time together that we have, in front of the fire.

PS Most people in ancient times had a shorter life span then we do now due to numerous causes not related to chimney smoke.

Posted by Beth, a resident of Walnut Grove Elementary School
on Jan 4, 2008 at 10:12 pm

My kids and many like them in Pleasanton cannot go outside in the winter when people are burning their fires without coughing and having to go back inside. The air quality indexes on such days indicating bad air quality back me up on this.

People who claim that they like their fire and won't stop burning their fireplace despite the health hazards are like smokers who could care less about secondhand smoke. It's selfish and unconscionable.

And yes, I have a gas fireplace. Not a real one. We light it; sit around it; enjoy it. All without being hazardous.

Posted by Stacey, a resident of Amberwood/Wood Meadows
on Jan 5, 2008 at 9:37 am

Saving energy with a fireplace? Have you added in the cost of your fuel logs and done temperature tests throughout the house to see if you're keeping the rest of your house colder than it normally would be with the furnace on or just looking at a number on a bill? Wood isn't exactly the most efficient/cheap energy source to burn (compare with coal or oil). A better way to save energy and lower your bill is to check out energy-saving resources like this one: Web Link

I think the bottom line isn't that using a fireplace is some sort of energy saver, but is completely sentimental. "Fireplace Lover" is a perfect pseudonym that illustrates this concept. People are emotionally attached to their fireplaces. I know I am. We have one in our house and even though we haven't used it in like 3 years I'm hesitant to have it torn out to make room for more wallspace. A fireplace sure doesn't serve the basic survival/cooking purpose it used to in history. The only purpose for it these days is the sentimental value!

Paulette, there _are_ some newer housing developments that are built without fireplaces or have natural gas ones.

BTW, a fireplace isn't the only way to bond with kids.

Posted by Bob, a resident of Another Pleasanton neighborhood
on Jan 5, 2008 at 4:59 pm

Occasionally, our family also enjoys the warmth and coziness of a fire but we have also taken steps to make the fire as efficient as possible by installing a fireplace insert with a catalytic combuster making a few pieces of wood last for an entire evening. Our unit has a 73% efficiency rating and low emmissions. The built in fan distributes the heat generated to warm our entire house.
It is not the perfect solution but all fireplace users should think of others as well as the environment and spend the money necessary to upgrade to a gas only or highly efficient wood burning unit if they want to be able to continue enjoying a fire. It is not acceptable to tell our ill or sensitive individuals to change their lifestyle, wear a mask or not leave their homes.

Posted by Jerry, a resident of Oak Hill
on Jan 5, 2008 at 5:16 pm

With the big storm that just passed through, do you suppose any of the homes that are still without power are using a wood burning fireplace for heat....Talked to a friend in the foothills that expects to be without power for several days. He's sure glad he has a fireplace. Without power his propane furnace doesn't work...

Posted by Beth, a resident of Walnut Grove Elementary School
on Jan 5, 2008 at 7:30 pm

Without power my gas fireplace has a battery starter. So I have heat just fine without power AND I don't pollute the atmosphere and cause problems to people who go outside.

There's always an alternative.

Posted by Stacey, a resident of Amberwood/Wood Meadows
on Jan 5, 2008 at 8:07 pm

Speaking of the rain, it sure does a good job of washing the air of the wood and garbage particles sent up by everyone's fireplaces and sending it right back down to us. :)

Posted by frank, a resident of Pleasanton Heights
on Jan 6, 2008 at 9:16 pm

Bob's fireplace should be the model for those who want to burn wood and its varieties in their fireplaces, for whatever reason (nostalgia, replace gas costs with wood costs, experience the warmth of radiant heat on a cold night, etc.) It has high efficiency (saves money buying firewood) and its catalytic converter produces more complete burning of the fuel, which is one reason for its high efficiency. But more importantly, it greatly reduces the toxins going up the chimney since complete burning results in water, carbon dioxide, and a bit of NOx (nitrous oxides). Much less of those nasty partially oxidized carbon molecules and carbon soot particles. Other than adding to global warming, our lungs will be largely spared.

Maybe when BAAMQD gets around to regulating away the use of fireplaces some day, they may permit only these conversions for those who need to use their fireplace.

Fireplaces and their role when the power goes out.... How did the topic of this post get changed to this? Or, how is this connected to this post's topic which is the prevalent use of fireplaces in a dense city environment when the power is on?

Posted by Shelley, a resident of Downtown
on Jan 7, 2008 at 3:21 pm

New rebate program to get rid of your polluting fireplace:
Web Link

Also, take a look at the draft of BAAQMD's Regulation 6, Particulate Matter and Visible Emissions, Rule 3, Wood-Burning Devices:
Web Link
Look at point 6-3-301 and 6-3-302. In summary: they are making it unlawful to burn wood during a curtailment period (spare the air day, which also occur in the winter).
The best part of this document is the warning labels that will be attached to the packages of wood people buy to burn (reminds me of the warning labels on alcohol bottles and cigarette packs):
"HEALTH WARNING: Wood smoke contains harmful particulate matter.
On cold, windless days the Bay Area Air Quality Management District
may announce a curtailment on burning wood or any solid fuel. On
these days you should not burn either indoors in your fireplace or woodburning device or outdoors in fire pits.

Burning during a curtailment is a violation of air quality regulations, unless it is the only source of heat."

So yes, fireplace smoke is like second hand smoke.

Posted by Stacey, a resident of Amberwood/Wood Meadows
on Jan 7, 2008 at 3:43 pm

Awesome, Shelley. Looks like BAAQMD may actually do something about this, which they should if the data about 37% of particulate emissions is from wood burning is correct. That is quite a huge chunk.

Posted by EDJ, a resident of Another Pleasanton neighborhood
on Jan 8, 2008 at 8:46 pm

America means freedom to me. Freedom to do what I please. I try to be considerate which is more than I can say for most Americans. Don't turn into a bunch of communists. Don't trade your freedoms for those few who squeak. It is not worth it. If you legislate for them you will end up in a dark, cold, dreary, colorless world where everyone and everything looks the same - for the greater good you will be told. It never works out that way.

Posted by Shelley, a resident of Downtown
on Jan 9, 2008 at 12:40 am

"Freedom to do what I please." -This statement is inherently flawed. So if it were my pleasure to murder people and I am put in jail, then my freedom (or right to do what I please) is being taken away? Don't confuse the freedom of our democracy with that of anarchy.
America is about "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness," not "life, liberty, and the pursuit to consume all available natural resources at the expense of our neighbor's health or our children's future."
Freedom is not expelling a bunch of hydrocarbons into the air.

Posted by Anonymous, a resident of Another Pleasanton neighborhood
on Jan 9, 2008 at 5:50 am

Anyone ever hear of a pellet stove insert? Much cleaner burning and fuel efficient.


Posted by Fireplace Insert Advocate, a resident of Another Pleasanton neighborhood
on Jan 11, 2008 at 12:41 pm

Bob, I agree with you!!

In past years we have burned in our fireplace and still used our brand-new, "efficient" furnace to heat the rest of the house for our small children. Our gas bill last winter was outragious!!

This past November, we invested in a fireplace insert with a catalytic converter. Concerned about those sensitive to smoke in and around my neighborhood and concerned about the environment we went for the most clean and efficient stove. The stove heats our entire house in the evenings and into the morning. We haven't turned on our heater at all this winter!

Posted by frank, a resident of Pleasanton Heights
on Jan 11, 2008 at 3:04 pm

A couple of questions for Fireplace Insert Advocate:

How are you circulating the heat from your fireplace throughout all rooms in your house? Are you using the furnace fan?

Also, can you share with us what your monthly costs for firewood have turned out to be? If you are cutting and hauling your own, or using supplies of old lumber, etc., can you quantify the monthly amounts?

Your experience sounds really good and was wondering what it takes to duplicate it.

Posted by Fireplace Insert Advocate, a resident of Another Pleasanton neighborhood
on Jan 11, 2008 at 4:43 pm


The insert we purchased heats about 2200 sq. ft. and is approx. 70% effecient. Our home is a single story just over 1800. It heats every room pretty comfortably except the master which is the farthest from the insert, we like it a bit cooler there anyway. The unit has a fan but we rarely use it as it gets too hot.

We typically start a fire at around 5pm with about 3 pieces, we add about 3-5 more pieces throughout the evening which keeps the house warm until late morning the next day. We have the wood delivered which, by the end of the cold weather, will average out to about $50/mo. if we use the entire cord. To date we have saved an average of $127.00/mo on the gas portion of our PG & E bill.

This spring we're looking to haul and cut our own wood (almond) for a bigger savings.

There are so many clean and creative ways to keep a living space warm without breaking the bank. We have heard many great things about Pellet stoves as well. After doing some research, we felt this particular solution would work for us, and so far we have no complaints! Good Luck!!!

Posted by frank, a resident of Pleasanton Heights
on Jan 11, 2008 at 7:25 pm

Thanks. Good info.

The only thing I don't quite relate to is getting the heat spread to all rooms of a house. 1800 sq. ft. is not all that small and in my personal experience of living in houses that did not have forced air central heating is the heat distribution. I grew up living in two much smaller houses in a frost belt climate without forced air heating during early childhood and my personal experience is not quite what you describe. Most likely it's the mild California climate at play here.

Posted by Paulette, a resident of Val Vista
on Jan 20, 2008 at 5:19 pm

Wow! This is great! I really applaud the people who actually have taken measures to cut back on their fireplace emissions. And, at least now I know I'm not the only one suffering and that there are people out there who like fires and are taking measures to make their fires less toxic to us.

FYI, there is a great article on this subject in today's (January 20th) SF Chronicle that has all kinds of data and information resources. 33 percent of the sources of bad air on "bad air days" is from woodsmoke. I think that's pretty substantial. Only 10 percent less than the collective emissions from off and on-road vehicles. It comes in second as the worst pollutant. They also supplied data about how scientific studies have shown an increase in lung related illness and death during winter, which they attribute to woodsmoke.

As our population increases, these pollutants only become more toxic and noticeable. I hit my breaking point 5 years ago. Those with severe lung diseases may die this season. It's not about freedom to be who you are, it's whether your freedom to enjoy a non-necessity (in most cases) is taking away someone elses freedom to thrive. There are compromises and ways to make your fires less toxic. But, there are those of us who cannot escape your smoke. And, we suffer. And, some will even die this winter from it.

Posted by Stacey, a resident of Amberwood/Wood Meadows
on Jan 22, 2008 at 6:36 pm

"Consumers get discounts on cleaner-burning fireplaces, wood stoves"

From Web Link

Posted by Jill, a resident of another community
on Dec 28, 2009 at 10:29 pm

We just moved into a house, and as much as a wood stove insert sounds wonderful and much more enviromentally safe and efficient. We can not afford it. My husband lost his job and we lost our house. We were very fortunate to have found a way to move our family to another home. It was built in the 70's and of course has a huge fireplace that has glass doors but is completely inefficient. We have four kids and November's propane bill was $600. It will only get worse. The kids have electric blankets on their beds, we have placed blankets over the windows and have done everything we can to try to conserve. Sometimes there is a reason the fireplaces are going. I believe we try too hard to make laws and rules. People need to stop and understand that everyone isn't trying to be ruthless and inconsiderate, but that just like you, alot of the time other people have a reason for doing what they are doing. I read this because I was looking into smoke hurting my family, but instead read about how I was mean because I burnt a fire, and how laws should be placed so that I can not continue to do it. All these laws just make it so that I can not take care of my family, especially in time of hardship.

Posted by Stacey, a resident of Amberwood/Wood Meadows
on Dec 28, 2009 at 10:33 pm

Stacey is a registered user.

Have you considered sleeping all in the same bed for warmth?

Posted by Stacey, a resident of Amberwood/Wood Meadows
on Dec 28, 2009 at 10:37 pm

Stacey is a registered user.

I don't mean to sound silly. There is probably a lot more you can do than spend $600 on propane. Our house is by no means the best insulated either. $600 sounds extreme.

Posted by Jill, a resident of another community
on Dec 28, 2009 at 11:05 pm

I know $600 sounds extreme and I can not afford to pay it. And, I wish I were exaggerating the amount. There is nothing in the house that is energy efficient. But, this blog just makes you feel like a complete jerk for even looking at using your fireplace. We have turned our heat off, and so far this month, it looks as though we will use one cord of wood, (which we bought for $180) and our house has been okay. The bedrooms are cold, so for whoever made the "sleep in the same bed" comment, my kids are sleeping in the family room on a futon bed front of the fire with an electric blanket. I understand that fireplace emissions are not great but before anyone talks about banning and make laws against it, I could never afford to heat my house for $600 a month in the winter. I can not afford to put in energy efficient blinds ($5500) I can not afford a new environmentally efficient wood stove insert (app $3000). A lot of people have a reason to burn a fireplace, and before you talk of MORE laws and regulations on it, maybe there needs to be more understanding. Like, maybe there is a reason.

Posted by Dark Corners of Town, a resident of Country Fair
on Dec 29, 2009 at 1:07 pm

Thanks Shelley for posting the BAAQMD info.
Since the EPA has declared that carbon dioxide 'threatens the public health and welfare of current and future generations' (Web Link) and since BAAQMD wants to put labels on firewood, should every human get a tatoo that says "HEALTH WARNING: Human breath contains harmful gases."?

Posted by Anthony, a resident of Avila
on May 24, 2010 at 11:28 am

To Aaron, a resident of the Highland Oaks neighborhood:

Are you an idiot? Do you really think that it's your right to smoke a cigarette? Cystic Fibrosis is a health condition. You can kill yourself and someone else by smoking. What if you had Cystic Fibrosis? Would you still be the red, white and blue, it's a free country, i can smoke where ever i want, american that you are? Do you know how much people like you complicate the situation of people with cystic fibrosis? Walk around with a mask? Are people with cystic fibrosis circus freaks? What is a person with Cystic Fibrosis supposed to do if they want to go to a club to see there favorite band, or play a concert where there is smoking, or eat at a resturaunt(even non smoking sections contain traces of smoke.) or anything.

People like you can go to hell.

You are america.

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