It’s better to burn hardwoods like mesquite, pecan and oak.

Cooler temperatures are finally here and may mean fireplaces will light up in many homes. Wood-burning fireplaces can be a pleasant source of warmth and comfort when the air gets crisp, but for some people, fireplace smoke can literally take their breath away.

Wood smoke contains tiny particles and toxic pollutants including benzene, formaldehyde and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. These can harm people with heart or respiratory disease, babies, young children and pregnant women. Pollutants in wood smoke can cause the eyes, nose and throat to burn with irritation, and even cause headaches, nausea and acute bronchitis in some people.

“People who are really sensitive to smoke can experience health effects if smoke levels are high,” said Beth Gorman, senior program manager for Pima County Department of Environmental Quality (PDEQ).

“In winter, I sometimes receive calls from people who cannot go for a jog or take their dog on a walk due to fireplace smoke in their neighborhood.”

Walking in neighborhoods where fireplace smoke is heavy can cause an irregular heartbeat, chest pain and shortness of breath in susceptible people.

Smoke can make asthma symptoms worse and cause lung inflammation and pneumonia in young children in homes where wood-burning fireplaces are used.

Fireplaces are not efficient home heaters. Most homes aren’t perfectly insulated, so cold air slips in under doors and through cracks, while hot air rises and escapes up the chimney. If flues are not properly installed and maintained, particles released during wood burning can escape into the home. The Environmental Protection Agency provides helpful “burn wise” information on its website and states that several pollutants emitted by wood burning have demonstrated cancer-causing properties similar to cigarette smoke.

For those whose fireplace is their sole source of heat and to reduce the risk of harm from using a wood-burning fireplace, PDEQ has these tips:

1 Have chimneys cleaned seasonally to reduce creosote buildup.

2 Burn hardwoods like oak, mesquite and pecan instead of soft woods like cedar, fir or pine. The wood should be split and dried for at least six months. Never burn household trash, plastic, plywood, painted or pressure-treated wood.

3 Use smaller pieces of wood. They burn more efficiently and are a better source of heat.

4 Allow enough room inside the fireplace for air to circulate freely around the wood.

5 Never burn plastics, painted wood, charcoal, printed pages in a fireplace. They will release toxic materials into the air.

6 Occasionally, check your chimney from the outside while the fire is going. If you see smoke, your fire is not burning hot enough. Give the fire more air and then check again.

7 Check before you light a fire to see if local air pollution levels are elevated. If they are, avoid using the fireplace, if possible. Get air current pollution information at

8 Remember... If you can smell smoke, you are breathing smoke!

Beth Gorman is senior program manager for the Pima County Department of Environmental Quality. PDEQ monitors air and water quality; provides hazardous- and solid-waste programs that ensure waste minimization and pollution prevention; assesses environmental compliance; processes environmental permits and plans; responds to public complaints and inquiries with investigations and enforcement; and reaches the community via public outreach, education, and citizens’ assistance. Learn more at