The Case Against Wood Fires
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Cesar Valdez
(PrimeZombie) - F

Locale: Scandinavia
The Case Against Wood Fires on 05/21/2013 07:11:58 MDT Print View

I was completely ignorant to how harmful wood fires/wood smoke is until I recently read an article by one of my favorite non-fiction writers, Sam Harris. He was using wood fires as an analogy, which we can (and I think should) ignore for the purposes of this discussion.

But the point is that as a life-long fan of wood fires, and as someone that once identified with the whole bushcraft style of backpacking, I am now going to actively avoid wood fires. More importantly, I am going to try very hard to keep my children away from them. I can't say that I will never sit by a nice campfire for the rest of my life, especially in case of an emergency for heat/signaling... but what is learned cannot be unlearned:

"Because wood is among the most natural substances on earth, and its use as a fuel is universal, most people imagine that burning wood must be a perfectly benign thing to do. Breathing winter air scented by wood smoke seems utterly unlike puffing on a cigarette or inhaling the exhaust from a passing truck. But this is an illusion.

Here is what we know from a scientific point of view: There is no amount of wood smoke that is good to breathe. It is at least as bad for you as cigarette smoke, and probably much worse. (One study found it to be 30 times more potent a carcinogen.) The smoke from an ordinary wood fire contains hundreds of compounds known to be carcinogenic, mutagenic, teratogenic, and irritating to the respiratory system. Most of the particles generated by burning wood are smaller than one micron—a size believed to be most damaging to our lungs. In fact, these particles are so fine that they can evade our mucociliary defenses and travel directly into the bloodstream, posing a risk to the heart. Particles this size also resist gravitational settling, remaining airborne for weeks at a time.

Once they have exited your chimney, the toxic gases (e.g. benzene) and particles that make up smoke freely pass back into your home and into the homes of others. (Research shows that nearly 70 percent of chimney smoke reenters nearby buildings.) Children who live in homes with active fireplaces or woodstoves, or in areas where wood burning is common, suffer a higher incidence of asthma, cough, bronchitis, nocturnal awakening, and compromised lung function. Among adults, wood burning is associated with more-frequent emergency room visits and hospital admissions for respiratory illness, along with increased mortality from heart attacks. The inhalation of wood smoke, even at relatively low levels, alters pulmonary immune function, leading to a greater susceptibility to colds, flus, and other respiratory infections. All these effects are borne disproportionately by children and the elderly.

The unhappy truth about burning wood has been scientifically established to a moral certainty: That nice, cozy fire in your fireplace is bad for you. It is bad for your children. It is bad for your neighbors and their children. Burning wood is also completely unnecessary, because in the developed world we invariably have better and cleaner alternatives for heating our homes. If you are burning wood in the United States, Europe, Australia, or any other developed nation, you are most likely doing so recreationally—and the persistence of this habit is a major source of air pollution in cities throughout the world. In fact, wood smoke often contributes more harmful particulates to urban air than any other source."

--source: http://www.samharris.org/blog/item/the-fireplace-delusion

On the plus side, I will save around 100g leaving my Mora bushcraft knife at home, and just taking a simple little SAK.

I have a feeling that Justin Baker is not going to like this thread. ;)

Thoughts?

Paul Mountford
(Sparticus) - MLife

Locale: Atlantic Canada
Re: The Case Against Wood Fires on 05/21/2013 07:44:16 MDT Print View

Thoughts - When someone starts making bold statements like “Here is what we know from a scientific point of view”, and their reference is a blog post, my first thought is that the thread should be in Chaff.

Cesar Valdez
(PrimeZombie) - F

Locale: Scandinavia
Re: Re: The Case Against Wood Fires on 05/21/2013 07:53:43 MDT Print View

Paul - Just to be clear, I didn't make any bold statements. The portion of text you quoted is from a large quote used of Harris. So it's his statement, and I would forward that it is not at all bold.

Here is another source, since you take issue with blogs, but if you knew anything about Harris, you would know that he is kind of a stickler for details and data:

http://ehhi.org/woodsmoke/health_effects.shtml

"
Although wood smoke conjures up fond memories of sitting by a cozy fire, it is important to know that the components of wood smoke and cigarette smoke are quite similar, and that many components of both are carcinogenic. Wood smoke contains fine particulate matter, carbon monoxide, formaldehyde, sulfur dioxide and various irritant gases such as nitrogen oxides that can scar the lungs. Wood smoke also contains chemicals known or suspected to be carcinogens, such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and dioxin.
Wood smoke interferes with normal lung development in infants and children. It also increases children’s risk of lower respiratory infections such as bronchitis and pneumonia.
Wood smoke exposure can depress the immune system and damage the layer of cells in the lungs that protect and cleanse the airways.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), toxic air pollutants are components of wood smoke. Wood smoke can cause coughs, headaches, eye, and throat irritation in otherwise healthy people.
For vulnerable populations, such as people with asthma, chronic respiratory disease and those with cardiovascular disease, wood smoke is particularly harmful— even short exposures can prove dangerous.
The particles of wood smoke are extremely small and therefore are not filtered out by the nose or the upper respiratory system. Instead, these small particles end up deep in the lungs where they remain for months, causing structural damage and chemical changes. Wood smoke’s carcinogenic chemicals adhere to these tiny particles, which enter deep into the lungs.
Recent studies show that fine particles that go deep into the lungs increase the risk of heart attacks and strokes. EPA warns that for people with heart disease, short- term exposures have been linked to heart attacks and arrhythmias. If you have heart disease, these tiny particles may cause you to experience chest pain, palpitations, shortness of breath, and fatigue."

Randy Martin
(randalmartin) - F

Locale: Colorado
Re: The Case Against Wood Fires on 05/21/2013 07:55:17 MDT Print View

I am not a fan of wood fires for a much simpler reason. I hate the smell of smoke. It's like glue and sticks to everything. Is there a certain beauty and peace in watching a wood fire burn, certainly. However, for me it doesn't overcome my hatred of smoke.

Lyan Jordan
(redmonk)

Locale: Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem
The Case Against Wood Fires on 05/21/2013 08:01:37 MDT Print View

Hopefully people read this and understand the seriousness of the situation.
Wood fires, power plants, cars, and our entire culture of carcinogenic pollution is the problem.
I don't think anywhere within 5 miles of a road has clean air anymore.
Riding a bike isn't healthy, it is just huffing exhaust fumes.

We need to return to the Amish lifestyle, or as close to it as we can.

--G.B.--

Paul Mountford
(Sparticus) - MLife

Locale: Atlantic Canada
Re: Re: Re: The Case Against Wood Fires on 05/21/2013 08:22:25 MDT Print View

Cesar – let me re-phrase:

Thoughts - When someone puts forward a bold statement from a third party like “Here is what we know from a scientific point of view”, and their reference is questionable science in a blog post, my first thought is that the thread should be in Chaff.

Better now?

Edited by Sparticus on 05/21/2013 08:23:01 MDT.

Nick Gatel
(ngatel) - MLife

Locale: Southern California
Re: Re: Re: The Case Against Wood Fires on 05/21/2013 08:26:22 MDT Print View

I haven't made a campfire while backpacking is decades. This was not for health or environmental reasons. It is mostly because a campfire cuts you off from your surroundings. You become isolated from your environment, living in a small concentric glow-world, unable to see into the contrasting darkness of night. And this seems to be counter to the reason I go bacpacking, which is to immerse myself in the wilderness.

A campfire is inefficient for cooking (compared to a stove), cookware gets sooty, only warms one side of you, not to mention that smoke gets in your eyes. A campfire requires time to build and maintain, time that could be better spent observing the night sky or nocturnal animals -- animals that would otherwise avoid coming near you or your campfire.

A communal campfire for a group is a nice socializing gathering point. But I rarely hike with a group. A fire is good for drying clothes or equipment should you unfortunately get them wet.

A campfire is wonderful when camping with children; especially if you remembered to bring hot dogs, marshmallows, Hershey bars, and Graham crackers.

I took my children camping more than most kids get to go, and we always had a campfire. It is a wonderful opportunity to bond and connect with your children, and frequent camping with the "obligatory" campfire are those touch points in life that can build character in kids, should you connect and communicate with your kids.

Like anything else in life, sitting in front of a campfire, moderation is they key. But who among us is sitting in front of a campfire the majority of their lives?

Joyce and I rarely build a campfire, and we probably camp more often than most folks. But on occassion, a campfire is a special place for us to share intimate time together.

jerry adams
(retiredjerry) - MLife

Locale: Oregon and Washington
Re: The Case Against Wood Fires on 05/21/2013 08:50:07 MDT Print View

I think they're more talking about people heating their house with wood fire

Campfire - stay up wind of fire. If you're in a campground with many other people with campfires, then people will breath each other's smoke, which is not good

Back in old days, they oriented houses to take advantage of sun and other natural sources. With cheap energy we orient houses for aesthetic reasons and to just pack in as many as possible. Need to go back to orienting houses to take advantage of natural sources, but that's difficult with an existing housing tract.

Craig W.
(xnomanx) - F - M
The Case Against Wood Fires on 05/21/2013 09:38:09 MDT Print View

...versus The Case Against Complete Domestication of the Species.

Ian B.
(IDBLOOM) - MLife

Locale: PNW
Re: Re: The Case Against Wood Fires on 05/21/2013 09:46:01 MDT Print View

I shopped for a woodstove but decided against it for a number of reasons. Among my concerns were how inefficient they are and their emissions. I spoke with the sales person about how I could mitigate the emissions problem and they tried to sell me some sort of catalytic brick(?) which would allow for the stove to burn cleaner. The catch.... the element would need to be replaced every year at a cost of $700.

I have no scientific data to back up my assumption but it seems that these systems could be improved with a better combustion chamber. After reviewing some articles and videos on Thermal Mass Stoves, they seem to solve this problem or at least mitigate it.

We are plagued with inversions here in eastern Washington. These happen during some of our coldest days which are coincidently the same days the farmers are burning motor oil in their smudge pots and home owners are running their woodstoves. All of that smoke hovers near the ground at the chagrin of asthmatics everywhere.

There is some talk in Washington of regulating these stoves. I'm torn on this issue. I'm not fond of an intrusive government but I'm also not a fan of insensitive homeowners/farmers imposing themselves on the private citizens around them either.

Back on topic! Like most here on BPL, I rarely build a campfire unless I'm with my kids or car camping. I have no doubt that campfires (& charcoal BBQs) are not healthy for the lungs but since we a) infrequently enjoy them, and b) have a 100% guarantee of death, I'm not going to swear off of them.

jerry adams
(retiredjerry) - MLife

Locale: Oregon and Washington
Re: The Case Against Wood Fires on 05/21/2013 09:57:30 MDT Print View

At least don't run your wood stove way damped down.

Better to run it hot with lots of air flow and then let it burn down with just coals, then throw some more wood on it if you must...

Good for bringing your house up to a warm temperature in the morning, rather than just burning it on low all day to keep house warm.

Fitz Travels
(fitztravels)
Examples on 05/21/2013 10:15:12 MDT Print View

"because in the developed world we invariably have better and cleaner alternatives for heating our homes."

Examples?

Katharina ....
(Kat_P) - MLife

Locale: Pacific Coast
Re: Examples on 05/21/2013 10:27:26 MDT Print View

Easy!
Plug something into the wall; from power tools to cars! The charge you get is clean, emission free and best of all it comes all the way from Narnia.

Craig W.
(xnomanx) - F - M
Re: Re: Examples on 05/21/2013 10:42:39 MDT Print View

"Easy!
Plug something into the wall; from power tools to cars! The charge you get is clean, emission free and best of all it comes all the way from Narnia."

Narnia?

I thought it came from magic beanfields....

Ian B.
(IDBLOOM) - MLife

Locale: PNW
Re: Re: Examples on 05/21/2013 10:43:30 MDT Print View

Narnia electricity is the BEST!

I'll have to do some digging but there was what appeared to be a relatively unbiased article on the topic if plug in hybrids or electric cars were truly cleaner since the energy source still has a carbon footprint (I can never say "carbon footprint" and look at myself in the mirror afterwards). The author's opinion, even when using coal energy, was that they were. I'll post the link in an edit if I can find it. I'm an admittedly dull person but it was interesting to read.

As far as campfires, heating houses, and other gold medal thread drift misplaced chaff threads go..... I'm sure there are cleaner ways to heat a home or a hiker but nothing (synthetic insulation to furnaces which run on bunny rabbit giggles) are consequence free.

One of the major energy problems IMO is it seems that 90% of the focus has been on supply and relatively little on demand (says the man who traded in his Prius and drives a truck).

Edited by IDBLOOM on 05/21/2013 10:53:50 MDT.

Cesar Valdez
(PrimeZombie) - F

Locale: Scandinavia
Re: Re: Re: Re: The Case Against Wood Fires on 05/21/2013 10:44:55 MDT Print View

Paul - Not quite. You are smuggling in a counter-claim, which is that the science that Harris is citing is "questionable." You will need to demonstrate this for your point to follow, i.e single out a specific claim of Harris that is questionable or false. About this thread being in Chaff, I am indifferent. Only interested in having discourse on the subject. And so far I must say there has been some good posts.

J J
(jraiderguy) - M

Locale: Puget Sound
@ Ian (yes, this is off topic) on 05/21/2013 11:15:45 MDT Print View

In terms of electric versus gasoline cars, a lot of the talk when I was in school a few years ago was about life cycle cost, in terms of dollars, joules, carbon emissions, or other metrics.

Electric cars most definitely have a "carbon footprint." It includes both the emissions related to the production of the vehicle, as well as the emissions from the powerplant which generated the electricity used to charge the battery while in your driveway. Whether or not the carbon footprint of an electric vehicle is more or less than a gasoline vehicle is dependent on circumstance. If Washington (or western WA anyways) your residential electricity may come from hydropower. If so, the "carbon footprint" calculated for your Prius might be significantly less than a someone living next to a coal fired plan rather than a dam. The equation changes again for nuclear, or wind, or solar. And of course, measuring carbon cost isn't the only relevant environmental metric. What about nuclear tailings, or reduced salmon runs, etc.

The point being that there's a movement in academia to capture total life cycle energy and environmental cost. Currently, it is quite easily for a manufacturer to "greenwash" their products by focusing on one metric which sounds environmentally beneficial but which may obfuscate other environmental externalities. Externalities being the general term for a side effect of a product or process not reflected in the cost of the product or process - i.e. you don't pay for the cost of your carbon emissions when you buy a car, but in theory society bares the burden of those costs.

One of the major obstacles to energy supply advancement is still storage of energy. We currently don't have a good way of storing energy for long periods. Batteries don't scale up well, and they are costly, so most solar farms only yield energy during the day. This is why coal fired plants and nuclear plants are efficient compared to wind and solar, because on-demand production is much easier to control with coal and nuclear. This is also why hydropower is cost effective, because we can use dams to store potential energy at the top of the hill and spill from the dam in the afternoon/evenings when everyone turns on their appliances.

Ian B.
(IDBLOOM) - MLife

Locale: PNW
Re: @ Ian (yes, this is off topic) on 05/21/2013 11:28:04 MDT Print View

And windmills kill eagles etc. Lots of hidden costs.

Ken Thompson
(kthompson) - MLife

Locale: Behind the Redwood Curtain
Re: The Case Against Wood Fires on 05/21/2013 11:38:08 MDT Print View

Fires in chimneys here every night in my neighborhood. Cheap, dry heat. Very popular here. Everything good has a bad side.

Greg Mihalik
(greg23) - M

Locale: Colorado
Re: (yes, this is off topic) on 05/21/2013 11:40:55 MDT Print View

"This is also why hydropower is cost effective, because we can use dams to store potential energy at the top of the hill and spill from the dam in the afternoon/evenings when everyone turns on their appliances."

Hydro is a by-product of sequestering water, and "cheap power" was an often used argument during the Bureau's pork barrel days. But power production is about 13th on the priorities list, way after agriculture and recreation. If you were to run the cost of the (government built) infrastructure against the power produced it would be grim. (The Columbia River Basin might be an exception.) Hydro Is excellent at adjusting to rapidly fluctuating demands - e.g. the 3pm air conditioner spike in LA.

Edited by greg23 on 05/21/2013 11:43:21 MDT.

rOg w
(rOg_w) - F - M

Locale: rogwilmers.wordpress
deleted on 05/21/2013 11:48:12 MDT Print View

deleted

Edited by rOg_w on 06/17/2013 20:21:22 MDT.

Luke Schmidt
(Cameron) - MLife

Locale: The WOODS
Re Re The Case Against Wood Fires on 05/21/2013 12:13:38 MDT Print View

Okay lets forget the planet for the moment. How bad is it for an outdoorsmen to sit next to a campfire? Most of us are only around campfires a few times a year, and for relatively short periods of time (compared to people who live in wood heated homes).

If being around a campfire can give me cancer then people who heat with wood all winter should be dropping like flies.

Ian B.
(IDBLOOM) - MLife

Locale: PNW
Re: Re: The Case Against Wood Fires on 05/21/2013 12:38:03 MDT Print View

"Who told you it would be $700 to replace the catalyst?"

The sales person and this was several years ago. There were other reasons for why I lost interest in the wood stove above and beyond that so I never did any followup research or comparative shopping. I'm not surprised that the quote was high though. Smallish town, fewer choices, and higher prices seems to be the M.O.

Justin Baker
(justin_baker)

Locale: Santa Rosa, CA
Re: The Case Against Wood Fires on 05/21/2013 13:49:23 MDT Print View

When I first saw the thread title I thought this was going to be some LNT nazi rant about burning wood causing an ecological disaster.

But this thread has me thinking.
I fully admit to creating an intentionally smoky fire and intentionally sitting downwind with the smoke blowing right in my face for the purpose of holding back an onslaught of mosquitoes.
I've used a fire extensively when backpacking. There were many nights when I first started where I kept a fire going all night to compensate for my crappy gear. I remember pushing a 40 degree bag into the teens. Also a cold winter night without a fire is miserable for me.

If you wore a buff or bandanna over your face, would that block some of the harmful particles?

I think the emission argument is silly. Think about all of the people burning wood in their homes and all of the smoke from wildfires. And the emissions from driving your car to the trail head. I don't think a campfire is something to worry about.

Justin Baker
(justin_baker)

Locale: Santa Rosa, CA
Re: Re: The Case Against Wood Fires on 05/21/2013 13:57:53 MDT Print View

I just read an article about cured meats and sodium nitrate being extremely unhealthy and causing cancer.
I guess I eat/inhale a lot of unhealthy things when backpacking.


p.s. Cesar, I remember when you started a flame war on bushcraft usa about people who carry 30lbs of steel and complain about their pack weight.

Jon Fong
(jonfong) - F - M

Locale: FLAT CAT GEAR
Re: Re: The Case Against Wood Fires on 05/21/2013 14:00:41 MDT Print View

Ever been in Yosemite Valley in summertime? The air quality there is worse that Los Angeles (and I ive in Los Angeles).

Luke Schmidt
(Cameron) - MLife

Locale: The WOODS
Re Re Re the Case Against Wood Fires on 05/21/2013 14:10:33 MDT Print View

"If you wore a buff or bandanna over your face, would that block some of the harmful particles?"

Since the particles can supposedly filter into neighboring houses I would guess not. On the other hand since the outdoors are way more ventilated then a living room I wonder how bad this really is. Even nerve gas becomes effectively harmless given enough ventilation. Notice all the hedge words like "potentially harmful" "can cause." No where do they say "X amount of time by a fire will produce Y chance of cancer or heart disease."

Andrew Zajac
(AZajac)

Locale: South West
in defense of the blog... kind of on 05/21/2013 14:13:55 MDT Print View

As someone who is also concerned about scientific validity I decided to look up Sam Harris's reference. He recommends this paper at the end of the blog. Not actually citing it is kind of fishy, but at least it shows he has read up on the issue.

Naeher, Luke P., et al. "Woodsmoke health effects: a review." Inhalation toxicology 19.1 (2007): 67-106.

You will probably have to access it through an academic institution or pay some ridiculous fee if you want to read it, but you can email me if you really want it and I can hook you up with the pdf so that you can draw your own conclusions. It is quite an exhaustive review from a peer-reviewed journal. It has also been cited 412 times by other peer-reviewed articles as of today according to google scholar. This all means that I have no doubt of the scientific validity of the claims in the article and I would urge people to read it for themselves and draw their own conclusions rather than listen to someone who is seemingly a professional atheist and is trying to prove a point about how paradigms are ingrained.

From a quick skim of the article, it seems that the blog author doesn't make anything up, but he does sensationalize a bit . In my opinion, the shortcoming of this blog post is that the author doesn't seem take into account the overall impact of the alternatives. For example, he advocates use of natural gas as healthier alternative, but there are plenty of public health risks associated with extraction, processing, transportation, and combustion of natural gas. Heating your home with local wood that you chop by hand eliminates pollution from extraction, processing, and transportation of natural gas and may even improve your health with the exercise required.

The Naeher et al. article is also most concerned with developing countries and firefighters. After a quick read of the article with an open mind, I personally am not worried about an occasional camp fire or even using a well drafting wood stove and plan to use them in the future.

"Poison is in everything and no thing is without poison. The dosage makes it either a poison or a remedy" - Paracelsus

Edited by AZajac on 05/21/2013 14:15:02 MDT.

Paul Magnanti
(PaulMags) - MLife

Locale: People's Republic of Boulder
Fire fire burning bright on 05/21/2013 14:21:18 MDT Print View

All I know is I'd rather be outside thinking whether I should have a fire or not instead on sitting on my rear end looking at forums posts about whether to have a fire or not.

;)

Katharina ....
(Kat_P) - MLife

Locale: Pacific Coast
Re: Fire fire burning bright on 05/21/2013 14:23:46 MDT Print View

You Tyger you

Andrew Zajac
(AZajac)

Locale: South West
Re: Fire fire burning bright on 05/21/2013 14:36:47 MDT Print View

True that, so print this out and read it by a fire. You can even stand if you don't like sitting on your rear end. You can even burn it page by page as you read it and really stick it to the man if you wish. ;)

Link to the article.
https://docs.google.com/file/d/0B2B_dN1jIG5AdkJCLW1XQXkzOWM/edit?usp=sharing

Edited to add winky face to ensure it is all in good fun

Edited by AZajac on 05/21/2013 14:55:35 MDT.

Ian B.
(IDBLOOM) - MLife

Locale: PNW
Re: Re: The Case Against Wood Fires on 05/21/2013 15:00:09 MDT Print View

"I think the emission argument is silly."

Ordinarily I would agree with you and in the case of campfires, I unconditionally agree with you.

My concern is more local as we live in an area prone to inversions which results in stagnant air. We see a rise in ER visits by asthmatics etc when these hit. I've never lived anywhere else which has these much less with such frequency.

This wiki page has a perfect picture of what I'm talking about. Not trying to patronize you but I personally knew nothing about them before moving back to eastern Washington.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Inversion_(meteorology)

Josh Brock
(needsAbath)

Locale: Outside
EYES ARE NOW OPEN on 05/21/2013 15:43:45 MDT Print View

How have we survived this long burning wood? I will never be cought dead by a fire its just too dangerous. I was just at the hospital and it was filled with people that had too many fires in their fire places waiting to die.

Way to make a minor health issue so dramatic. Whats next on your agenda "Cheese will it be the end of humanity?" the wolrd is one american cheese slice away from a heart attack.

spelt with a t
(spelt) - F

Locale: SW/C PA
mm on 05/21/2013 16:00:38 MDT Print View

It's smoke; of course it's not good to breathe it. But I think I'll save my respirator for when I'm working with heavy dust and nasty VOCs from man-made products. I can't get too worked up about the occasional fire when all the meat/eggs/dairy/fiber/nitrites/ethanol I consume is already no doubt causing cancer to fester in my every cell. I do have to laugh (bitterly) that Harris dares to suggest natural gas as a "clean" alternative. Please.

eric chan
(bearbreeder) - F
fire on 05/21/2013 16:02:21 MDT Print View

how may fires do you start a year "camping" ... 5? 10? ....

i wouldnt worry about it unless yr doing it every day like those in third world countries

what i WOULD worry about is knowing and keeping in practice on HOW to start a fire ... cause if you never practice you wont be able to do i when yr cold,tired, hungry, shivering and in the dark ... and youll be deader than a dodo

;)

Roger Caffin
(rcaffin) - BPL Staff - MLife

Locale: Wollemi & Kosciusko NPs, Europe
Re: The Case Against Wood Fires on 05/21/2013 16:42:01 MDT Print View

> Here is what we know from a scientific point of view: There is no amount of wood
> smoke that is good to breathe. It is at least as bad for you as cigarette smoke, and
> probably much worse.

A small correction: that is what the original author of the quoted text has written. Whether or not it is true is quite another matter.

For a start, it's in a blog. No scientific (or common sense) checking at all. Blogs like that are very often written by people with a real nut-case bee in their bonnets, and distort the name of science to an extreme. I am not saying this author has done that, just that it is possible. The more extreme the claims, the more likely.

Next, humanity has survived many hundreds of thousands of years (and I do means that) sitting around small (and often smoky) wood fires. We have evolved from primitive species to modern man in the company of small wood fires. Does this suggest that the fires are highly toxic to us - or that maybe we are quite adapted to them?

The claims that wood smoke contains 'hundreds of compounds known to be carcinogenic, mutagenic, teratogenic, and irritating to the respiratory system' may well be true, but what is missing there is any mention of concentration. This is typical of such hysterical arguments. FACT: the human immune system relies on the continued presence of low levels of harmful things to keep it primed to protect us. Grow up in an utterly sterile and clean environment and you become a 'bubble baby': you will die when you meet the real world.

I am stirred to comment when anyone trys to misuse science in pursuit of some mad quasi-religeous agenda. That would be the case here.

All that said, if anyone wants to stop lighting fires, that's fine by me. I don't mind.

Cheers

Roger Caffin
(rcaffin) - BPL Staff - MLife

Locale: Wollemi & Kosciusko NPs, Europe
Re: in defense of the blog... kind of on 05/21/2013 16:44:37 MDT Print View

Hi Andrew

> you can email me if you really want it and I can hook you up with the pdf so that you
> can draw your own conclusions.

I'm retired these days and don't have access like I used to. Appreciated if you can.
Cheers
roger@backpackinglight.com

USA Duane Hall
(hikerduane) - F

Locale: Extreme northern Sierra Nevada
The Case Against Wood Fires on 05/21/2013 17:53:17 MDT Print View

I burn self-harvested firewood as the primary source of heat for my home, have been for the last 32 years. I live a five minute walk from FS land, so I use little gas to haul it home. I'm one of two people in my small department at work that routinely have perfect attendance each year. I rarely catch any bug or get sick. I'm afraid this all is like saying the sky is falling after getting hit on the head by an apple falling out of the tree. Not wanting to sound sarcastic as many previous posters I know and respect their wisdom have commented. I also managed a convenience store for 19 years in Kalifornia, having read the posted signs that state requires about harmful chemicals in petro products and cigarettes. Like bping for many of us, all in moderation. Water will kill you too, if too much is drank.
Duane

Cesar Valdez
(PrimeZombie) - F

Locale: Scandinavia
Some replies on 05/22/2013 02:50:21 MDT Print View

Andrew - Thank you for looking into the source material and confirming that Harris is building his case using solid science. We may have to disagree about him sensationalizing it, which is rather subjective, but glad we can agree that science has confirmed that wood fires/smoke are quite harmful for you. Moderation is another issue, and then again, there are people that smoke tobacco and don't get cancer.

Harris not focusing on the alternatives I think is not so much a shortcoming on his part, but a limitation of the scope of the text. He wanted to make an apt analogy, which I think he did quite well, not jump into the rabbit hole of all of the nuances of natural gas production and consumption. But your point is well taken about natural gas. I don't know much about natural gas, but the little I do know is that solar and wind power seem to be overall much better for the environment, and would advocate their use--but this is the subject of another thread, methinks.

Justin - "Cesar, I remember when you started a flame war on bushcraft usa about people who carry 30lbs of steel and complain about their pack weight."

I remember it too, but I wouldn't characterize it as me starting a flame war. A guy asked for feedback on a video of his where he showed off his gear. I gave him feedback and he and others didn't like it for some pretty absurd reasons. I remember posting a link to the video on here shortly after, because it was pretty shocking to those of us that are into lightweight BPing. He had I think 4 knives, an axe, and a machete; and he had like 6 liters of water, but lives in PA. Anyhow, needless to say, I don't miss BCUSA at all, but all this is a neither here nor there.


Roger - "For a start, it's in a blog. No scientific (or common sense) checking at all. Blogs like that are very often written by people with a real nut-case bee in their bonnets, and distort the name of science to an extreme. I am not saying this author has done that, just that it is possible. The more extreme the claims, the more likely."

You did see Andrew's assessment of Harris' citations, and you even asked to have him send you the source. So I think it is dishonest of you to first say that it's just a blog, for one (i.e. appeal to authority fallacy). Then you suggest there is no scientific checking, and that often blog authors are nutcases (ad hom fallacy)--yet then, what is confusing, is that you say that this author may or may not be doing that. Why bother to rant about it then? It comes off like you wanted to make some hasty accusations, without directly addressing the text, and then evasively state that you are not saying these accusations apply to Harris (but that it's possible).

"Next, humanity has survived many hundreds of thousands of years (and I do means that) sitting around small (and often smoky) wood fires. We have evolved from primitive species to modern man in the company of small wood fires. Does this suggest that the fires are highly toxic to us - or that maybe we are quite adapted to them?"

You ignore the fact that humanity has also increased its life span significantly since we were hunter-gatherers, not to mention that humanity has survived doing all sorts of things--this does not mean that all of what we have done to survive are good or preferred methods of our continued well-being. For hundreds of thousands of years man survived without modern medicine and things we now take for granted like sanitizing wounds with things like rubbing alcohol and such. Think of all the people that must have died from preventible infections.

You suggest that we are quite adapted to wood fires. Not sure what you mean exactly. That our bodies are adapted to wood smoke? Because surely this is not the case. There are many toxic chemicals in wood smoke, and if you are exposed to them often, your risk for cancer and heart conditions increases, from what I gather.

Next, had you read the rest of Harris' article, you would have read the following, which you have pretty much proved Harris' point with your appeal to our use of fire to survive as a species:

"I suspect that many of you have already begun to marshal counterarguments of a sort that will be familiar to anyone who has debated the validity and usefulness of religion. Here is one: Human beings have warmed themselves around fires for tens of thousands of years, and this practice was instrumental in our survival as a species. Without fire there would be no material culture. Nothing is more natural to us than burning wood to stay warm.

True enough. But many other things are just as natural—such as dying at the ripe old age of thirty. Dying in childbirth is eminently natural, as is premature death from scores of diseases that are now preventable. Getting eaten by a lion or a bear is also your birthright—or would be, but for the protective artifice of civilization—and becoming a meal for a larger carnivore would connect you to the deep history of our species as surely as the pleasures of the hearth ever could. For nearly two centuries the divide between what is natural—and all the needless misery that entails—and what is good has been growing. Breathing the fumes issuing from your neighbor’s chimney, or from your own, now falls on the wrong side of that divide. "

Again, I include Harris' point about religion so you could get the full context of the above quote, but my focus here is of course on wood fires and not religion.

"The claims that wood smoke contains 'hundreds of compounds known to be carcinogenic, mutagenic, teratogenic, and irritating to the respiratory system' may well be true, but what is missing there is any mention of concentration. This is typical of such hysterical arguments. FACT: the human immune system relies on the continued presence of low levels of harmful things to keep it primed to protect us. Grow up in an utterly sterile and clean environment and you become a 'bubble baby': you will die when you meet the real world."

This is a red herring. No amount of toxic chemicals is good for you, period. And while it is true that the human immune system functions better when primed, you wouldn't smoke a big cigar while you held a newborn baby, now would you? And you also include toxins and things like bacteria together when you use the blanket term "harmful things" in relation to priming our immune system. Being exposed to bacteria and being exposed to toxins are two entirely different things, which affect our bodies and our bodies processes much differently. For instance, having a chicken pox party so that children can be exposed to this illness and then build a subsequent immunity to it is one thing. Gathering children together into a room full of smoke in an absurd attempt to "toughen" them up or prime their immune system is another thing, and I would be surprised if you could find scientific scholarship that would support such a thing.

"I am stirred to comment when anyone trys to misuse science in pursuit of some mad quasi-religeous agenda. That would be the case here."

I don't see how Harris or the other source I cited was misusing science. Harris' agenda is ironically against religion--his point is that people often defend traditions irrationally, i.e. because fires bring people warmth and comfort, they don't want to believe that they are harmful, and will go through great lengths (as you have done) to justify the continued use of wood fires (e.g. appeals to tradition, priming our immune systems, etc.).

You are just using a bare assertion in claiming that this is a case of someone misusing science in a pursuit of a mad quasi-religions agenda, and your rebuttals don't substantiate this claim, as I have elaborated on above.

Others have been more honest in their contributions and have been able to recognize that wood smoke is indeed harmful, but to strive for moderation. This I can respect, and to a degree, this is close to how I intend on addressing this issue. I plan on avoiding wood fires/smoke, but because I enjoy them so much, there will be times I break down and sit by a cozy campfire. But where we go from here collectively as a community of outdoor enthusiasts that come into contact perhaps more thank most people with wood fires, this is the crux of the issue.

Do we accept the facts and strive for moderation and avoidance of a clearly harmful aspect of the outdoor experience? Or do we stamp our feet in denial of the scientific facts and continue to promote and practice this harmful aspect? I don't mean to suggest that this is a false dichotomy, and would of course be open to more nuanced solutions, but as I see it, these seem to be two significant factions of this discussion.

A disclaimer: please don't take the above personally. This medium of communication has inherent limitations. You can't use my body language or intonations in my voice to build an entirely accurate idea of my intentions or tone. I assure you I am not angry or offended or anything like that. We just disagree on some key points. My aim is for civil and polite discourse, though I am human too, so forgive me if ever come across as anything other than interested in a positive intellectual exchange of ideas. :)

Erik Basil
(EBasil) - M

Locale: Atzlan
Re: Re: The Case Against Wood Fires on 05/22/2013 07:30:04 MDT Print View

Wow.

Well, my take-away is the reminder not to breathe too much campfire smoke and, as a guy that sits around a dozen or more of those a year *and* tends to function like a chimney wall...I do get smokey. Heck, I have a jacket that smells Awesome, from campfire smoke. I've had people in line at the store comment that I smell like a campfire!

If it were a thread about LNT, I'd understand it: on trail in the locations I go, scavenging and burning wood on the ground "leaves trace" in spades.

Paul Magnanti
(PaulMags) - MLife

Locale: People's Republic of Boulder
camp fires on 05/22/2013 07:43:52 MDT Print View

I still plan on making a campfire once in a while (3-4 times a year) for the simple reason that I like it.


Perhaps I'll ponder a longer, more detailed response other than "'cause I like it" as I sit around said campfire. ;)

BER ---
(BER) - MLife

Locale: Wisconsin
Wood fires on 05/22/2013 10:46:52 MDT Print View

Cesar,

I like your well rationed and on-point rebuttal. Kudos for keeping it to a very well spoken discussion.

As a physician who has not read the article in question, but is well familiar with a variety of respiratory ailments, I would just say:

Long term/frequent repetitive smoke exposure, probably bad (from carcinogens).
Short term smoke exposure in confined space, possibly bad (from carbon monoxide and other toxins depending on concentration and length of exposure).
Short term/ infrequent smoke exposure in unconfined space, probably of minimal concern, with the caveat to those with a history of emphysema, asthma, known allergies to smoke, or other COPD (from secondary pulmonary irritation and resultant bronchospasm).

An interesting discussion.

Edited by BER on 05/22/2013 10:53:03 MDT.

Cesar Valdez
(PrimeZombie) - F

Locale: Scandinavia
Re: Wood fires on 05/22/2013 12:26:53 MDT Print View

Ber - Thank you for your kind words! Much appreciated, especially from a physician. I think you provide an excellent summary of the consequences. For the past three years I have gone out into the woods on average of about 20 nights per year. I would say a solid 75% or so of those trips included one or more campfires, and that's not including campfires from day trips and friends and family that have wood stoves or fireplaces. You can see my concern, surely, from all this exposure. From what I understand the lungs are a touch organ and can clean themselves out given time and clean air. The damage to my heart I don't even want to think about, but hopefully it will not have lasting effects. I am 32 years old and fairly active (just came back from a 2.5 day, 55km trip), so that I hope will help to cancel out any damage done--plus my wife is a vegetarian, so I mostly eat vegetarian or vegan at home. I do eat meat but favor foul and seafood. I usually only have red meat once a week or so, at times less. But I digress...

You should read the articles cited, they make for good reading, and I am glad you found this discussion interesting :)

M B
(livingontheroad) - M
no case on 05/22/2013 15:56:11 MDT Print View

You are going to die, no matter what.

Wood smoke from campfires, is likely negligible compared to other risk factors in your environment.

Edited by livingontheroad on 05/22/2013 15:59:44 MDT.

Nico .
(NickB) - MLife

Locale: Los Padres National Forest
The Case Against Wood Fires on 05/22/2013 19:01:18 MDT Print View

Statistics show that absolutely 100% of people who sit near a campfire or breathe in smoke from another's campfire will eventually die.

In all seriousness though, outside of those segments of the population that are exposed to smoke/ash on a highly regular basis and/or those that are unusually susceptible to breathing problems (like those with chronic asthma), I have a hard time believing that occasional exposure to wood smoke/ash should rank high on one's health risk radar.

I understand and can appreciate that smoke is unhealthy and even exposure to a little of it isn't doing your lungs, eyes, throat, etc. any favors, but to conclude that wood fires pose such an unacceptably high health risk that all should avoid fires entirely seems like a bit of an overreaction. Like any other potentially dangerous activity or commodity, a little care and moderation should go a long way toward helping avoid, or at least minimize, the ill effects of smoke/ash (like only sitting around the occasional campfire and trying to stay upwind of it).

Interestingly, Southern CA beach cities are caught up in the midst of this debate right now. The City of Newport Beach is attempting to remove all of the public fire rings from City beaches. Apparently, homeowners along the beach front in these areas are complaining of being inundated with smoke and ash from these fire pits, especially during the busy summer season. Others charge the effort to remove the fire pits is a thinly veiled attempt at dissuading out-of-town beachgoers from using these beaches by taking away these popular amenities. The City failed to get the approval from the CA Coastal Commission on their first attempt to remove the fire pits, as the Commission saw the removal of the fire pits as a loss of "public coastal access/recreation." Since then the regional Air Quality Control Board has decided to step into the fray and proposed a rule change that would require the removal of all fire pits from all beaches within their jurisdiction under the guise of air quality and public health. This, of course, has kicked off a sh!tstorm of opposition from folks who enjoy the fire pits as well as other coastal cities who enjoy the added traffic and revenue the beachgoers bring to their City. Not to mention, it's caused others to question the prioritizing of beach fire pit removals over other much larger sources of smoke/ash (e.g. wood burning fireplaces in many homes). Not sure where this will all end up when all's said and done. Wouldn't be surprised if the heavy hitter politicos have to step in to settle the dispute.

just Justin Whitson
(ArcturusBear)
Re: The Case Against Wood Fires on 05/22/2013 21:13:16 MDT Print View

Re: in home wood fires; what about one of those efficient wood stoves? I have and use one most of the winter. Since i usually burn pressed sawdust bricks which are quite dry, and my stove has a chamber and design set up to go through a secondary burn wherein the gases and smoke is burned up some too...

I have a hard time believing it's super bad for everything and everyone. When it's running well, you don't even see any smoke come out of the chimney. Granted i have to run it fairly hot and not damp it down too much to do so, but i would rather burn it cleaner than save a little fuel since i'm using recycled stuff to begin with.

Granted, different than a camp fire, but even that occasionally shouldn't be too bad.

Ian B.
(IDBLOOM) - MLife

Locale: PNW
Re: Re: The Case Against Wood Fires on 05/22/2013 21:38:59 MDT Print View

"what about one of those efficient wood stoves?"

I'm sure they are awesome. I wasn't trying to start a crusade against wood stoves as much as I was trying to bring up a point that under certain circumstances (during an inversion) that the smoke can be problematic for people with breathing problems. After witnessing several severe asthma attacks in my EMS days (smokers not from stoves), I'd be concerned that my stove would trigger an attack on some kid a block away. I have nothing to back up this concern with other than just seeing how smokey it gets during these weather conditions. Probably making a mountain out of a mole hill but when I eventually buy/build my cabin, I'll shop (within reason) for the cleanest burning stove.

I was watching a couple YT videos on thermal mass stoves and there was no visible smoke coming from the vent like what you were mentioning.

Jim Sweeney
(swimjay) - MLife

Locale: Northern California
Biological inefficiency on 05/29/2013 12:11:23 MDT Print View

Great discussion.

I don't have wood fires in the back country because to me they seem a waste of important local biological resources-- downed wood is an opportunity for insect growth, which fuels a whole chain of linked biologies (you may have watched a bear tear apart a log to get at the grubs), a source of compost/soil generation in stony environments, a aid to water retention in areas with variable precipitation, etc.

Turning something so complex, which would otherwise live out a many-yeared cycle of further use, into brief heat and simple smoke seems out of balance.

Justin Baker
(justin_baker)

Locale: Santa Rosa, CA
Re: Biological inefficiency on 05/29/2013 12:17:28 MDT Print View

If you are hiking in a high alpine area or camping in a well used camp area, then you are absolutely right. Fuel depletion is a serious ecological problem.

But most of California below the treeline has excessive amounts of dead wood. There is so much dead wood that it crowds the forest floor and prevents new growth. It's also a huge wildfire hazard.

spelt with a t
(spelt) - F

Locale: SW/C PA
Re: Biological inefficiency on 05/29/2013 12:19:54 MDT Print View

I don't have wood fires in the back country because to me they seem a waste of important local biological resources

Fires are also a natural and necessary part of many ecosystems. Not that your wood fire is necessarily contributing to ecosystem function, but just b/c you don't burn that wood doesn't mean that it won't be burned.

Theron Rohr
(theronr) - F

Locale: Los Angeles, California
Re: Re: Biological inefficiency on 05/29/2013 19:53:50 MDT Print View

"Fires are also a natural and necessary part of many ecosystems. Not that your wood fire is necessarily contributing to ecosystem function, but just b/c you don't burn that wood doesn't mean that it won't be burned."

This is a good point - certainly here in SoCal where forest fires are a natural part of the ecosystem.

I also remember another interesting argument in favor of campfires that I read a couple years ago - probably on this forum. In a nutshell the argument was that whatever environmental damage is caused by a wood fire it is probably less than that caused by the alternatives. Consider the fossil fuels burned in the mining, processing and transportation of canister stoves and their fuel for example. The chemicals in their paint, the plastic and paper in their packaging. Finally the garbage produced when they are used up. It seems probable to me that if we encouraged people to go into the woods and light fires there would less impact worldwide from the few dozen fires the average person lights, and *nothing* to throw away after 2 years when they give up camping in favor of some other hobby.

Edited by theronr on 05/29/2013 19:54:55 MDT.