Health News Digest

December 4, 2006

It’s Time To Get Serious About Fireplace Safety


By  Michael D. Shaw

As winter arrives, the warmth of a crackling fire is a welcome feeling indeed. This classic image of hearth and home is an indelible reminder of the holidays and seasonal festivities. But, too many people fail to take the necessary safety precautions that come with having a fireplace. In fact, more than 6,000 people find themselves in hospital emergency rooms each year for injuries associated with fireplaces and fireplace equipment.

Even worse, the vast majority of those who suffer these injuries are children under the age of five, a powerful reminder that owning and operating a fireplace demands prudence. Bear in mind that approximately 14,000 house fires are also started each year by fireplaces. And yet, these events—which can bring injury, death, and destruction—escalate beyond the confines of the fireplace because of shoddy workmanship, or just plain negligence:  Missing bricks, obstructed flues, ignition of nearby combustibles, overloaded fireplaces, and flying sparks all contribute to the subsequent damage that claims so many lives each year.

It is crucial for families and homeowners to educate themselves about these hazards, so they can keep themselves both safe and warm.

If you own and operate a fireplace, have it inspected—ideally once a year, especially if it is used frequently. Make sure it has an adequate protective lining and appropriate smoke ducting. Also, check to see that the chimney is clear and in good repair; chimneys need regular maintenance, which reduces the risk of fires and carbon monoxide poisoning due to creosote buildup or obstructions. For factory installed fireplaces, assurance of the protective lining and smoke ducting are absolute musts. Some of these inspection and maintenance operations may require professional assistance, but all of these tasks are a necessary part of using a fireplace.

Note that there are a number of different styles and types of fireplaces on the market, some of which are not as safe as others. For example, ventless or vent free gas fireplaces are not approved in Canada, and have limited approval in the United States. In rural areas, these issues assume even greater importance because fireplaces can be a principal source of home heating. Fires created for home heating account for 36% of residential home fires in such places, because of creosote buildup in chimneys and stovepipes.

As many owners of newer homes discover, to their chagrin, the nice fireplaces they have are at best only intended for “fake” fires. That is, they are only suitable for the burning of natural gas, surrounded by permanent ersatz logs. Attempts to burn logs will fill the room with smoke, as the venting is completely inadequate. Sometimes, synthetic logs, manufactured from compressed sawdust, will be useful in these installations. But try them under a watchful eye first!

At any rate, there is much to be said for the clean-burning and environmentally-friendly properties of the synthetic logs.

Remember:  never use flammable liquids to start a fire, and always use a metal mesh screen with fireplaces. Another essential is simply a form of common sense—never burn cardboard boxes, trash, or debris in your fireplace or wood stove. These materials are, quite obviously, an inappropriate kindling for a home fireplace. Nor should you leave a fire in the fireplace unattended, as injury or other damage may ensue.

When building a fire, place logs at the rear of the fireplace on an adequate supporting grate. And, as always, install smoke alarms on every level of your home. Test these devices monthly and change the batteries at least once a year.

Here are some more good tips.

A fireplace can provide great enjoyment, provided various safety precautions exist. The injuries related to the use of fireplaces are generally preventable, and are thus further proof of the necessity of educating people about this issue. Proper maintenance is an essential part of using a fireplace, a duty too few individuals actually follow. Only by taking this job seriously, and only by learning about these steps, can fireplaces be used responsibly.

Enjoy the holiday season!