Once a status symbol; now an eco-hazard

Once a status symbol; now an eco-hazard

Winsome Brown, an actress and writer, and her husband, Claude Arpels, own an enviable apartment in TriBeCa worthy of publication in an interior design magazine. The apartment has maple floors, casement windows and all the character one would expect to find in a building that was once a factory.

But one of the features that many in the city would pay a premium for is something the owners don’t like: the fireplace. Hard as it may be to believe, the fireplace – long considered a trophy, is acquiring a social stigma. Among those who aspire to be environmentally responsible, it is joining the ranks of bottled water and big houses.
“The smoke from a fire smells very nice,” said Diane Bailey, a senior scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council in San Francisco. “But it can cause a lot of harm.” The tiny particles, she said, “can cause inflammation and illness, and can cross into the bloodstream, triggering heart attacks” as well as worsening other conditions.

Or as Starre Vartan, a 33-year-old blogger who goes by the name Eco-Chick, put it: “Any time you are burning wood or cow dung, you’ll be creating pollution. It’s like junk food: If you do it once a month, then who cares? But if it’s something you do every day, it’s important that you mitigate it somehow. It’s a hazard.”

Not surprisingly, the green community has been sounding the alarm for some time. For the last several years, TheDailyGreen.com, an online magazine, has advocated replacing all wood-burning fireplaces with electric ones; an article published in September by Shireen Qudosi, entitled “Breathe Easier With a Cleaner Fireplace,” argued that there is no such thing as an environmentally responsible fire.

Wood smoke contains some of the same particulates as cigarette smoke, said Dr Norman H. Edelman, the chief medical officer for the American Lung Association, as well as known carcinogens like aldehydes; it has also been linked to respiratory problems in young children. “We now know from lots of studies that wood smoke is very, very irritating,” Edelman said. Certainly, there are many who consider this eco-overkill. But growing concerns about the air pollution and health problems caused by smoke from wood-burning fires are prompting a number of areas across the country to pass laws regulating them.

For those who still want to build a fire, there are several ways to make it more environmentally friendly, experts say, including using an energy-efficient wood or pellet stove certified by the EPA or retrofitting a fireplace with an insert (a device, usually made of iron or steel, that fits into the mouth of a fireplace and enables it to heat more efficiently).

Brown and Arpels’ solution was to install an energy-efficient wood stove in one of the three fireplaces at their farm in Chatham, NY. The surrounding countryside is filled with downed trees that would decompose anyway, Brown, 38, said, and Arpels, 41, gets some exercise from splitting the logs. “Basically we’re not transporting things using oil from across the world to our house,” she added.