Picture this: A person enjoying a cup of hot chocolate and a good book while resting in an arm chair in front of a blazing fireplace. A cozy image of the winter season? Perhaps, but it’s becoming increasing clear that this picture is not a healthy one. That wood, which is burning so brightly, is spewing forth an invisible battalion of minute particles to pollute the air we breathe and that surrounds our skin. Wood smoke generates PM 2.5 pollution.
‘PM2.5’ stands for particulate matter less than 2.5 microns – which is less than 1/100 000 of an inch – in diameter.
PM2.5 pollution is well known to cause flares of asthma and to be harmful for adults with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and other chronic lung disorders. Inhalation of these particles is also dangerous for those with preexisting heart disease, raising blood pressure and, indeed, precipitating heart attacks. PM2.5 pollution is also linked to chronic kidney disease and lung cancer. It is dangerous for pregnant women, as well. These particles are also linked to miscarriages, prematurity, and lower birth weight babies.
PM2.5 pollution is bad for the skin, too.
PM2.5 and even smaller, ‘ultrafine’ particles enter the skin. PM2.5 can enter via the hair follicles, the even smaller, ultrafine particles can even penetrate through lipid membranes of the stratum corneum. Particles can also access skin through the blood after being absorbed through the lungs.
These tiny particles can go virtually anywhere – through our nose and mouth, down through the smallest of bronchial tubes – and into the alveoli themselves where our lungs are at work, exchanging carbon dioxide for oxygen. And they don’t stop there.
Like the gases we breathe, PM2.5 can enter our blood stream, and from there they can go anywhere in our body – including our skin.
PM2.5 from wood burning fires and the combustion of fossil fuels are coated with noxious chemical called ‘polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons’ or PAH. These PAH induce inflammation and generate oxidative stress.
New studies now link particle pollution to flares of eczema in older adults and of atopic dermatitis in children. They are also linked to skin aging.
In many underdeveloped countries, indoor cooking over wood fires is a major source of PM2.5 pollution. Heating homes with wood-burning stoves contributes to air pollution within the US. But perhaps our wood-burning fireplaces are the least excusable of these polluters. Most fireplaces serve no essential function, because they have the net effect of heat loss from our homes.
So it’s time to replace this out-dated and erroneously comforting notion of a fireplace burning wood. It’s time to swap out these dangerous, polluting devices for cleaner burning, less polluting gas fireplaces – or better yet for a non-polluting and clean-sourced, electrical fireplace.
Eliminating wood burning fireplaces would be better for our families, our neighbors and the planet. And better for our skin.