Treated or Coated Wood
When you burn coated or pressure-treated wood, toxic chemicals can be released into the air you breathe. For example, wood treated to withstand rot or insects used to contain a form of arsenic, while painted, stained, or varnished woods contain other chemicals—and all these chemicals create toxic fumes when burned. Nix on plywood, too, because adhesives applied during manufacturing release toxic fumes when burned.
Small recyclables are often used to start a roaring fire because they usually catch fire quickly. The next time you need to get a fire going, however, don’t use cardboard (including pizza boxes and cereal boxes), which is often treated with chemicals. Instead, use approved fire starters, available from camping-supply stores, or small splinters of wood, chipped with an axe from your stock of seasoned firewood.
Never use lighter fluid, charcoal starter fluid, or any other type of accelerant to start a fire in a fireplace. These products are designed for very specific uses and should not be used to fuel an indoor fire, in part because they often contain methanol and petroleum-based chemicals that produce toxic fumes. In addition, the use of accelerants creates an extra-hot fire that can damage your chimney liner.
Magazines and Colored Paper
The inks used to create colorful magazine layouts contain chemical pigments that release toxic fumes when burned. If your fire needs a boost getting started, you may use a couple of sheets (not more) of plain black-and-white newspaper, rolled tightly and placed beneath small bits of wood kindling, but don’t toss magazines, gift wrap, or coupon inserts into the fireplace. Not only do these items create unwanted fumes, but bits of burning paper can float up and out of an uncapped chimney, putting your roof and nearby structures at risk of fire.
The best thing you can do to make sure your firewood is always fireplace-ready is to keep it dry. For starters, dry wood is easier to light than damp wood. Even more importantly, the moisture in wet firewood makes it smoke and leads to rapid creosote buildup in the chimney liner. In fact, creosote buildup is a leading cause of chimney fires. While you can’t completely avoid creosote, you can reduce the risk of buildup by burning only dry firewood and having your chimney cleaned annually.
You wouldn’t intentionally roll around in a patch of poison oak, but you’ll be putting your whole family at risk if you burn the woody vines from poison sumac, poison ivy, or plants that contain urushiol, a toxic irritant that causes rashes on contact. In winter, when plants lose their leaves, it can be difficult to tell if you’re gathering harmless vines or poisonous ones, so take precautions by avoiding anything you can't identify. The reason? Fumes from burning plants that contain urushiol can trigger serious allergic respiratory reactions.
Related: 10 Ways Your Backyard Can Hurt You
Evergreen trees, such as pine, spruce, and cedar (yes, even your old Christmas tree), contain resins that catch fire quickly and produce a hot flame. While this might sound good, these trees burn so fast that the fire will fizzle out quickly, and their high resin content can leave heavy creosote deposits in your chimney, which can over time lead to chimney fires.
Finding a way to repurpose wood pallets is a great idea—just don’t burn them. Discarded shipping pallets are popular materials for resourceful DIYers and crafters, but many pallets have been treated with the chemical pesticide methyl bromide to prevent the spread of the emerald ash borer, a beetle that wreaks havoc on living ash trees. Never burn a pallet that bears the stamp “MB,” which indicates that it has been treated with chemicals. Even if you don't see a stamp, it's probably safest to avoid burning pallets altogether.
If you’ve ever attended a beach party where driftwood was burned, you probably oohed and aahed at the beautiful lavender-blue flames. Those colorful flames are produced by metal salts that the wood absorbed while it was adrift, and, unfortunately, the fumes from those flames are toxic. Many seaside communities have banned the burning of driftwood for just that reason, so follow their lead and don’t burn wood that you’ve gathered on the beach in your fireplace.
Many people do it—toss an empty plastic-foam cup or a used paper plate on an open fire. If you've fallen into the habit, stop now: Most consumer products contain chemicals that produce hazardous fumes when burned. What's worse? Some of the most toxic trash items contain plastic, which releases a category of toxins known as dioxins. Inhaling dioxins increases the risk of respiratory ailments, headaches, internal organ damage, and even cancer.
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