When we talk about wood smoke, often someone will bring up the fact that people have been burning wood for thousands of years. Since humans have been exposed to wood smoke for a very long time, the reasoning goes, it must not be a health hazard.

But people have been exposed to all kinds of natural hazards for all of humanity—dangerous bacteria and viruses, poisonous plants, venomous creatures, and much more.

Asbestos is a natural material that has been used since antiquity and was once widely used in a variety of products, but today we know that breathing in asbestos fibers is strongly linked to cancer.

Just because something is natural and has been with us for a long time doesn’t mean it’s harmless.

Evidence of wood smoke harm throughout history

We know from archaeological and historical evidence that humans have been harmed by wood smoke for as long as humans have been making fires.

There is evidence that wood smoke may have been linked to cancer in ancient times, as well as COPD, and contributed to atherosclerosis and the emergence of tuberculosis as well.

Many of the health effects were likely similar to those that modern people still experience in some parts of the world, where open fires in the home for cooking and heating are estimated to kill around 2 million people each year.

Pollution from wood burning is an ancient problem

We tend to think of air pollution as a modern problem that began with the Industrial Revolution. But air pollution was, in fact, recognized as a threat to health even in the time of Hippocrates around 400 BC.

The earliest evidence of hominid-made pollution comes from the hearths of cave-dwelling Neanderthals. The heavy metal content from ashes in the hearth sediments was high enough to meet modern-day definitions of contaminated soil.

Lung tissues from mummified remains in Egypt, Peru, Britain, and other parts of the world have been found blackened with soot (PDF), a condition known as anthracosis, from “long exposure to the acrid smoke of domestic fires.”

Researchers studying a Neolithic settlement in Turkey noted that if residents had been regularly having fires, “they certainly would have been exposed to extremely high levels of unsafe PM2.5.”

Iron Age home reconstruction

In the 1990s, the Department of Prehistoric Archaeology at the University of Copenhagen carried out a series of experiments in reconstructed Early Iron Age houses in an attempt to understand what it would have been like to live in such a setting in wintertime.

During the study, the research team burned “fairly dry split ash and elm wood,” which “produced large quantities of smoke, leading to pollution of the air in the house.”

The researchers measured “alarmingly high amounts of various toxic pollutants produced as a consequence of burning wood. These included: carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, benzene, toluene and O-xylene.”

Wood smoke in ancient Greece

An archaeologist writing about Iron Age Greece noted that, given the evidence of harm about wood smoke (PDF):

…women and children are likely to have suffered from severe respiratory illness and… there would have been higher mortality rates amongst certain groups of the population.

It’s never been healthy

Humans have existed with wood smoke for a very long time, but it’s never been healthy.

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