Wood Fires: A Traditional Source of Air Pollution

Wood Fires: A Traditional Source of Air Pollution

Many of our neighbors who like to use their fireplaces and backyard wood pits claim that burning wood is a traditional method of cooking and heating that goes back thousands of years. If wood has been burned for thousands of years, they reason, wood smoke can’t possibly be harmful, right?

Wrong. Not only do the bodies of the earliest humans show the effects of breathing wood smoke, many people in developing nations today are suffering and dying from the ‘natural and traditional’ use of wood fires. Even when biomass is burned in more modern cook stoves, soot is released at extremely high levels.

A recent article, “Killer cookstoves: Indoor smoke deadly in poor countries,” reiterates this point. The numbers are staggering, with about 2 million deaths annually attributed to cooking smoke. In addition, the World Health Organization attributes 35% of chronic obstructive pulmonary deaths and 21 percent of lower respiratory infection deaths to indoor air pollution from burning solid fuel.

Despite the fact that open-hearth fires are traditional, the smoke that is generated is extremely harmful. In efforts to decrease illness and mortality from the traditional use of wood fires, as well as to mitigate the enormous impact of these fires on global warming, developed countries have donated millions of dollars towards cook stoves intended to lessen the harmful health effects of traditional fires. Unfortunately, such stoves continue to emit extremely high levels of soot, offering little if any improvement over traditional fires.

The bottom line? Wood smoke from traditional (and not-so-traditional) fires is harmful to your health. And this tradition is one that continues to kill, thousands of years after its inception.

Here at home, the time has come to adopt new traditions when we gather with family and friends. On a global scale, we must work to develop new, less toxic ways for people to stay warm and cook their food.

After all, ingenuity, innovation, and creative problem solving are American traditions as well.


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