If you have a wood-burning fireplace, it’s likely that now and then you toss in things like cardboard, junk mail, and egg cartons. And why not? It seems like anything that burns should be able to go in because the smoke and fumes go right up the chimney. And that’s a really bad idea. In fact, each time you do that, you could be putting your home and your family at risk.
It seems like anything that burns should be able to go right in, as the smoke and fumes go right up the chimney. But the U.S. Fire Administration warns that some items can release toxic fumes into your home and neighborhood or become an out-of-control fire hazard. To keep your home and family safe, burn only dry, seasoned wood, never leave a fire unattended, and never put any of these items into your fireplace.
Wood that is wet, freshly cut or otherwise not completely dried out or “seasoned” can contain up to 45 percent water. When burned, wet wood is going to produce a lot more smoke than if it had been allowed to dry. That smoke can contain dangerous creosote, a substance the forms in your chimney as you burn fires, and it can pose serious threats to your health and household.
Painted or treated wood
When you burn painted, stained or varnished wood, the chemicals in those coatings produce toxic fumes. Pressure-treated lumber is injected with a form of arsenic to kill bugs. Set that on fire and you get a noxious burn-off.
These types of wood are manufactured with glue and resin, which release toxic fumes when burned. If that air fills the house it can be dangerous for you and your family and can corrode your chimney and fireplace.
Shipping pallets appear to be well-seasoned and easily broken down into kindling and indoor firewood. But no. These days, many pallets are built from wood that has been treated with methyl bromide, a pesticide to combat ash borer disease in forests of living trees.
While treated lumber is required to be stamped and marked with codes to indicate said treatment, don’t assume that if you can’t find that information on a pallet that it’s safe to burn it indoors.
Every holiday season it seems, local fire departments demonstrate the foolishness of attempting to get rid of the family Christmas tree by stuffing it into a lit fireplace. If you’ve seen that, it’s likely no one needs to remind you to not do it!
Here’s the problem that can easily burn your house down: In addition to that tree not being seasoned, the evergreen wood of the tree contains high levels of resin. These resins burn quickly and can pop, causing a risk of a chimney fire that can take the entire house down with it.
Once ignited, cardboard goes up fast—so fast, it can create an out-of-control situation in a big hurry. If that’s not enough to scare you, that if cardboard has any printing or labels on it, that ink and paint will release toxic fumes
While an effective fire-starter for your outdoor firepit or campfire, dryer lint can contain a lot of chemicals left from the laundry products and softeners many people use. Once ignited those fumes have to go somewhere. Knowing this could be released inside your home if you were to put dryer lint in the fireplace should keep you from doing that in the future.
Even totally dried out and fully seasoned, driftwood can be filled with salt, which when burned can corrode the fireplace itself and chimney. That can lead to expensive repairs.
It’s tempting to just toss items like bubble wrap, paper cups, plates, egg cartons and other trash into the fireplace just to get rid of it quickly. Stop. Just stop doing that. You could be releasing dioxins, which can lead to respiratory problems, headaches, even cancer when inhaled in a closed environment.
It’s cold! You want a fire going in a big hurry. So, out comes the lighter fluid you use in your outdoor grill. That will do the job, but it’s not very smart to use it indoors. Any kind of charcoal starter fluid or another type of fire accelerant contain petroleum-based chemicals that produce toxic fumes—hazardous to breathe. They produce super hot fires, too, which can put your chimney in danger. Worse, that lighter fluid could set you on fire when used haphazardly and inappropriately.
Magazines and paper
The inks used to print in bright colors on paper of all kinds—junk mail, newspaper inserts, magazines, catalogs, gift wrap—can produce toxic fumes when ignited. Small bits of lightweight paper can float up and out of the chimney putting your roof and surrounding structures at risk of fire. These items should be disposed of properly in a recycle bin, not burned in the fireplace.
What can you safely burn?
While using a few sheets of black and white newspaper to ignite the kindling is just fine, remember this when building a cozy, crackling fire indoors: The best fuel for your fireplace is the fuel it was built for. Pellets for pellet stoves and dry, seasoned firewood or manufactured fire logs for a wood-burning fireplace. Burn other types of fuel and you run the risk of releasing toxic fumes or encouraging chimney fires.