Hi! Please help settle a family debate. My husband loves our giant fireplace enclosed with only a wire frame that is a central feature in our house, which has no other form of heating. Now that we have a baby, I’m not a fan. I think it puts a ton of smoke in the air and creates bad air quality. He contends that the smoke gets sucked out through the chimney. Grandparents and aunts also fall on opposite sides of the debate; one family member contends that humans have always had fires indoors, while another retorts that life expectancy was also shorter in the past. I want to be warm, but air quality for our baby matters way more to me. What does the data say? Thank you!—Bundled up
Usually I do not like to take sides in a family debate, but I am on yours in this case.
Globally, indoor air pollution — caused by fires inside homes — is responsible for an estimated 3.2 million deaths in recent years. Particulate pollution inside homes is associated with increased risks of respiratory infections, heart issues, and premature birth for pregnant women.
This seems scary, but it is important to say that in many heavily affected areas, the in-house ventilation is very poor. People are cooking over open fires in their homes without the kind of chimney you are describing. Nevertheless, indoor air quality even at lower levels of particulates has been shown to affect health. This came up a lot during the pandemic. It’s related to concerns about wildfire smoke, which I have written about before.
The debate in your house really, then, should boil down to: how problematic is the air quality in your house when you have a fire going in the fireplace? If the chimney ventilation is excellent, it is possible it’s not an issue.
You can measure this — there are a number of indoor air quality monitors (PurpleAir is one brand, and there are others) that measure particulate matter in the air in your house. People often use these to measure air quality inside when there are wildfires outside. There are guidelines about air quality (see here) that you could apply.
If the air quality is not good, you’ve got options. One is a new heating system, of course. Another is a HEPA filter, which could definitely help.