Backyard fires are part of enjoying a summer evening for many residents, but others say they're a headache - literally - because the smoke from their neighbors' fires makes them sick.
Fire pits are a current source of debate in Royal Oak, where the City Commission is looking at loosening up open burning rules. The issue was also discussed last year in Ferndale, where backyard fires were previously banned until the City Council voted to allow them with certain conditions.
Many residents have shared concerns on Patch over possible health issues from fire pit smoke, so Patch asked Beaumont Children's Hospital Pediatric Pulmonologist and Allergist Martin Hurwitz to discuss the risks of smoke exposure.
Can smoke trigger serious respiratory effects like allergies, asthma, bronchitis, and emphysema?
Dr. Hurwitz: It has been long-known that smoke, particularly cigarette smoke, is a major causative factor in chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (emphysema and chronic bronchitis). Smoke has also been known to cause wheezing and asthma symptoms in infants born to mothers who smoke cigarettes during pregnancy (causing actual lung changes in the offspring that predispose to asthma).
For individuals who have asthma and allergic disease, exposure to smoke definitely is associated with acute exacerbations of those conditions, sometimes with very serious consequences. Second-hand smoke exposure to children from smokers in the home is definitely associated with wheezing and greater frequency of ear and upper respiratory tract infections in the children.
As with many environmental factors, smoke exposures act in concert with genetic tendencies in individuals to combine to produce respiratory symptoms which adds some complexity to the question and answer (not all cigarette smokers develop emphysema and bronchitis and lung cancer and some live long lives). Smokers have a greater tendency to develop infectious bronchitis, particularly in the colder months of the year (as do members of households of smokers). The broad answer to question #1 is YES!
How common is it and what kind of discomfort is experienced?
Dr. Hurwitz: Health consequences from smoke exposure are very common. Asthma exacerbations with wheezing and difficulty breathing and even need for emergency care often occur after smoke exposures (campfires, home fires, cigarette smoke exposures, leaf and vegetation burning in the fall, burning of incense, etc.).
If an individual has irritated eyes and nose from seasonal allergy or year-round allergy, smoke exposure adds another element of irritation which magnifies the usual symptoms of runny nose, itchy eyes, cough, sore throat, and chest heaviness.
Are there health risks related to clean (not treated) wood smoke for kids or the elderly?
Dr. Hurwitz: Smoke from any plant source is a combination of incompletely combustible carbon, carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, and acids and each of these products of combustion pose health risks at certain concentrations in the air.
The elderly are very much more prone to ill effects and health risks of smoke exposure because of age-related natural decline in lung function and often coexistent illness such as heart disease, existing lung disease, or other systemic disorders.
Children have increased sensitivity to smoke exposures particularly in enclosed environments with respiratory symptoms as the usual consequences.
Is it possible for someone with asthma to enjoy a wood fire? If so, how?
Dr. Hurwitz: Smoke in an enclosed environment is to be discouraged for individuals who have respiratory disorders. Wood burning stoves produce a fine ash that is irritating an can cause "wood burning stove asthma." Fireplaces often are not efficient enough in removing smoke from the fire to the chimney, with a fair amount of smoke entering the home.
A campfire or beach fire in a very open, well-ventilated outdoor situation may be tolerated reasonably well if individuals are not down-wind from the smoke of the fire.
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