In light of the forest fires raging across Eastern Canada in Quebec, we thought you’d want to know a bit about the effects of such a catastrophe on your lungs and health.

Forest fires can be likened to a smaller-scale everyday burn: your fireplace.

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While you might like the idea of curling up next a raging fireplace with a good book, did you know that your fireplace is actually spewing out particle matter, carbon monoxide, volatile organic compounds and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. Sound complicated? Well it is, and it’s also rather deadly and not just for those of you with fireplaces in your homes. You’re also infecting your neighborhood with airborne toxins.

Communities with wood heating contribute to as much as 25% of the airborne particle matter, 15% of the volatile organic compounds and 10% of the carbon monoxide in the air. Those are some pretty shocking numbers and quite high. That means that 50% of the air you breath in wood-burning communities is killing you — slowly.

Wood smoke is known to increase asthma attacks, cause more frequent visits to the hospital and even cause premature death. Studies have shown that wood smoke and fire smoke kills more people than fires. And just because you’re funneling the smoke up through your chimney doesn’t mean you’re escaping the fireplace’s ill effects. Your smoke is then seeping into neighboring buildings — including your neighbor’s homes — which directly affects indoor air quality.

Exposure to wood smoke from fireplaces or even forest fires (which are out of our control) generally cause eye, nose and throat irritation as well as headaches, dizziness and nausea. While these might not seem like severe symptoms, long-term exposure to wood smoke can cause serious respiratory illness. And polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon, a component of wood smoke, has the potential to cause cancer.

The “c” word. That’s right; cancer. True, everything seems to cause cancer nowadays, but fire smoke is a serious concern because it’s something we don’t really think about, especially in communities where fire wood is the main source of heating.

What can you do to protect yourself and your neighborhood from wood smoke?

North American by-laws have already restricted the use of wood-burning stoves and fireplaces in communities, and new buildings no longer have them. All new fireplaces are now natural gas and heating has been change to oil. If you must use a wood burning stove to heat your home, then you can invest in an “advanced combustion” wood stove or fireplace insert that will reduce the toxic emissions caused by the wood smoke.

 So, the next time there’s a cold snap, or you want to curl up in front of the fireplace on a wintery day, think about the health risks associated with your romantic reverie. Often times we are blinded by the health risks because of the feelings associated with an action. Look beyond the comfy, cozy atmosphere of a fireplace and look instead at the ambient air pollution and smog associated with the activity.

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