The Fireplace Delusion

Tuesday, December 17th, 2013

Sam Harris stumbled upon an example of secular intransigence that may give readers a sense of how religious people feel when their beliefs are criticized — the fireplace delusion:

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.


  1. Grasspunk says:

    Where’s the delusion?

    Does this only work on city people that have a fireplace and central heating? I don’t get it.

  2. Hephaestus says:

    The example shows what it is like for someone, including the nonbeliever, “to suffer an unhappy collision with scientific rationality.”

    The atheist who uses a fireplace is informed by the dry facts of modern science that he is a fool for the innocuous act of burning wood in a fireplace.

    Get with the times, fire kills! Modern science provides a safer form of heat! Cast off the needless ritual of building a fire! Why are you comforted sitting next to the fire, hearing the crackle of the wood, watching the sparks of the fire wizard?

    Likewise, the atheist informs the believer that he is a fool for tending the hearth in his soul.

  3. Isegoria says:

    The delusion is the heartfelt belief that a wood fire is good for you — since it smells and feels so good and has been good for thousands of years.

    The problem is that it’s not an unalloyed good. In our natural environment, having a fire is much, much better than the alternative of freezing in the dark as predators approach. In our modern environment, it’s a (mildly) toxic alternative to cleaner sources of heat and light.

  4. William Newman says:

    I wonder whether this is another delusion warring it out with the delusion it attacks. I find it very plausible that people are overfond of fireplaces for irrational reasons. But 70% of smoke reenters buildings? From eyeballing the amount of soot deposited (noting lots of interiors have very light walls) and remembering typical patterns of chimney smoke seen from outside people’s homes, and remembering that I’ve never heard of a remarkably high figure for residences slurping up nasty material even in fairly numerate discussions of chemical attacks and nuclear fallout, I wonder whether the figure the article states as an absolute is even within an order of magnitude of what typically happens in the US or other places where most of his audience is. (Though admittedly, it is “research shows” which from context could easily come from mouth-breathing NGO fundraising literature, paraphrased without citation in a medium where citations are dead easy to give, by someone whose name has come up in other Internet drama, so I must concede that it’s pretty much guaranteed to be strictly true.)

  5. Dave says:

    Jesus loves humanity and desires to reconcile himself to fallen man. Repent of your sins against God’s law and rejoice that God sent His Son to save you!

  6. Grasspunk says:

    Do people really believe that fires are good for you? Fun and romantic, maybe, but not good. The main reason to base your heating on wood was cost.

    There also seems to be a bit of confusion between recreation fire use and with data from regular fire use in dense urban areas. The people that might be romantic about fires don’t run them very often.

    I guess there could be a slippery slope: romantic fires could lead to harder fire use and addiction.

Leave a Reply