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Sitting around a fire can be a great source of warmth and fun for most; however, it also has the potential to cause a host of health complications.
Tiny toxins—PM2.5 (pollution particles measuring 2.5 micrometers or less)—commonly known as “combustion particles” come from these fires and can cause some severe health impacts, research shows.
Even worse, those using wood-burning stoves can face some of the worst effects.
“We are increasingly concerned about particulate matter air pollution and other forms of air pollution,” Dr. Joel Kaufman, professor of environmental and occupational health sciences, medicine and epidemiology at the University of Washington in Seattle, told the American Heart Association. “There’s increasing evidence that certain pollutants are associated with cardiac disease, heart attacks, and stroke. At certain times of the year, wood burning is a major source of that pollution.”
What Health Problems Result from Combustion Particle Exposure?
Mainly, these toxins tend to heighten the risk of various complications, such as increasing the risk of cardiac events or Toxicant Induced Loss of Tolerance (TILT).
Worse, they impact at-risk communities at higher rates — causing other issues to increase the risk of hypertensive disorders during pregnancy.
Combustion particles can cause such damage because of their size, according to the experts.
“The size of particulate matter is much less than the width of a human hair,” Kaufman said. “They’re too small to be seen and also small enough they’re easily inhaled and can get deep into the lungs.”
There are other risks, according to Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment, which include:
- Wood smoke contains over 200 dangerous chemicals and heavy metals
- The EPA estimates that an equal amount of particulate pollution from wood smoke is 12 times as carcinogenic as an equal amount from second-hand cigarette smoke
- Burning 10 lbs. of wood for one hour, releases as much PAHs (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons) as 6,000 packs of cigarettes
- Toxic free-radical chemicals in wood smoke are biologically active 40 times longer than the free radicals in cigarette smoke
- Wood smoke is the third-largest source of dioxins, one of the most intensely toxic compounds known to science
How Does Combustion Particle Exposure Impact Latinos?
In many countries around the world, wood-burning stoves are a leading source of cookware, according to Dr. Sanjay Rajagopalan, chief of cardiovascular medicine at University Hospitals Harrington Heart & Vascular Institute in Cleveland.
“When you [use wood-burning stoves], individuals living within the home are exposed to a wide range of pollutants that vary,” Rajagopalan said. “In a home that has a lot of woodburning, the levels approach what you see in a smoke-filled room with secondhand smoking.”
Many Latino-American families hail from countries that use these kinds of stoves, such as Guatemala. Open-fire cooking promotes numerous harms, including smoke inhalation and severe burns.
“The first thing we swallowed every morning was smoke,” Marco Tulio Guerra, who grew up in rural eastern Guatemala, told National Geographic.
These kinds of exposures only add to the already significant exposures Latinos in America face.
Can I Avoid Combustion Particle Exposure?
The primary way to avoid harmful exposure is reducing the amount of time spent near open fires.
Despite the romantic associations surrounding this kind of activity, it is best to use the utmost caution, according o Menn Biagtan, program manager of the British Columbia Lung Association.
“For many, the image of a wood stove represents warmth and tradition,” Biagtan writes. “However, wood smoke consists of fine airborne particles (PM2.5) that affect the heart and lungs when inhaled and a growing body of research shows wood smoke particles are just as damaging to health as other sources of particulate matter pollution such as exhaust emissions from vehicles.”
For those who use an open-fire stove, experts are urging civic and business leaders to come up with better cooking solutions.
“I don’t think we need better wood-burning cookstoves,” Rajagopalan said. “The answer is move away from these archaic technologies. That, and education about cardiovascular risks.”