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Dr. Wood: Wood smoke stokes memories, but breathing issues too

FILE PHOTO: Breathing in wood smoke can cause headaches, irritation of the eyes, nose and throat, coughing or difficulty breathing.
FILE PHOTO: Breathing in wood smoke can cause headaches, irritation of the eyes, nose and throat, coughing or difficulty breathing.

We’re just a few weeks from the official start of winter and the weather is starting to reflect it. As the temperatures drop, many of us start stoking up the fireplace or wood stove. Many have great memories associated with family gatherings around a cozy fire.

Unfortunately, breathing in wood smoke can affect your health and that of others. Some effects can be headaches, irritation of the eyes, nose and throat, coughing or difficulty breathing. Children, older adults, and people with heart or lung diseases are most likely to be affected.

How much wood smoke you are exposed to depends on how well a nearby fire is burning, how quickly the smoke rises and spreads, and the amount of time you spend breathing wood smoke, both indoors and outdoors.

The Olympic Region Clean Air Agency (ORCAA, www.orcaa.org) monitors outdoor pollution levels in Thurston, Clallam, Grays Harbor, Jefferson, Mason, and Pacific counties. Wood burning can significantly affect air pollution.

According to ORCAA, approximately half of the homes in the Olympic Peninsula and coastal area of Washington have some type of wood-burning heating device. Because many of us rely on wood burning for heat, or just enjoy using our fireplaces, it is important to follow some basic best practices when using your fireplaces, inserts and/or wood stoves:

▪ Burn dry, seasoned wood. Season wood for at least six months. Wet wood gives off less heat and makes more smoke. It also can cause creosote to form that can cause chimney fires.

▪ Build small, hot fires.

▪ Ensure your fire has plenty of air. Open the damper!

▪ Do not let the fire smolder overnight. That creates more smoke and also causes creosote to form.

▪ Let the fire burn down to the coals and then rake the coals toward the air inlet, creating a mound. Do not spread the coals flat.

▪ Reload your fire by adding at least three pieces of wood at a time. Put the wood on and behind the hot coals.

▪ Go outside and look at your chimney when you are burning. If you see smoke, the wood is not burning completely.

▪ Be aware of environmental burning conditions. During stagnant periods, a burn ban may be in effect. You can check on the ORCAA website.

Use an EPA Certified Wood Stove. If you aren’t, you can find more information about a rebate program that can help you replace your old stove, fireplace or insert at https://www.orcaa.org/burning/wood-stove-program/

Following these recommendations will help you burn wood more efficiently and reduce smoke that causes adverse health effects and air pollution. Reducing air pollution helps achieve the Thurston Thrives goal of keeping air clean. You can learn more about burning wisely at http://www.epa.gov/burnwise.

Stay healthy while staying warm!

Reach Dr. Rachel C. Wood, health officer for Thurston and Lewis counties, at 360-867-2501, woodr@co.thurston.wa.us.

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