Backyard recreational wood burning is a growing source of pollution and misery in many neighborhoods.

Spurred on by industry marketing and lifestyle features in various media, outdoor fireplaces, chimeneas and fire pits have become increasingly popular, as have wood-burning barbecues and smokers. These items are being installed even in small urban backyards in densely populated areas.

A man in shorts kneels on the grass as he adds sticks of wood to a smoky fire.
Backyard burning is a growing public health menace.

Neighbors suffer

Backyard recreational burning presents an especially difficult situation for neighbors during the warmer months of the year. Even with windows shut and air conditioning on, the smoke can be drawn in through the air intake of the unit. If windows are opened, the house fills even more with harmful wood smoke. If ventilation from the outside is closed, homes can become miserably, or even dangerously hot, yet still not keep out all of the smoke. Even during cooler months, it is impossible to keep out wood smoke.

It isn’t healthy for anyone, but if the neighbors have young children, are elderly or have a medical condition, it can be especially hazardous.

Even fire pits marketed ‘efficient’ or ‘smokeless’ are not harmless.
Multnomah County. Just how harmful is that backyard fire? What our air quality expert found will alarm you.

Very unhealthy levels of pollution

The South Coast Air Quality Management District in California found that the particulate emissions rate per minute from one beach fire ring (fire pit) is equal to the secondhand smoke from 800 cigarettes.

As an example of how polluting it is to burn wood in a residential backyard, a PurpleAir particulate counter located outside a home in British Columbia recorded 206μg/m3 of PM2.5 when a neighbor was using a wood-burning fire pit. This was an increase from a background level of under 5μg/m3.

A screenshot from an online PurpleAir sensor reading showing a "very unhealthy" level of pollution, with an Air Quality Index number of 257..
A wood-burning fire pit creates a very unhealthy level of air pollution in the neighborhood. Courtesy Bill Lewin.

“Smokeless” fire pits are still harmful

Multnomah County, Oregon, air quality expert Brendon Haggerty lit a fire in his backyard in a type of fire pit marketed as “smokeless,” using seasoned firewood. An article on the county’s website describes what happened:

Within moments, his air quality monitor began to beep, as smoke from the flames blew across his backyard, causing the air quality to drop from healthy to unhealthy and shoot right through hazardous, until levels of particulate maxed out the devices’ ability to measure.

They point out “even fire pits marketed ‘efficient’ or ‘smokeless’ are not harmless.”

Brendon Haggerty added:

Most of us probably don’t imagine that one fire could be a problem, but to a vulnerable neighbor it really could. So even if that fire brings some people closer together, chances are someone lives nearby who is going to suffer the consequences.

Meat smokers pollute

Backyard meat smokers are becoming another growing source of harmful pollution in residential areas. Meat smokers are set up for hours at a time, and sometimes overnight, filling neighborhoods, and neighboring homes, with smoke.

In an article about the problem of backyard burning and meat smoking, a neighbor described what happened after someone two houses away set up a meat smoker in the backyard:

We would wake up 11:30 at night with our bedroom full of smoke. And it would happen all night long. Eyes burning, chest burning. We’d be trapped.
Clouds of smoke billow from a backyard meat smoker.
Backyard smokers are another growing source of harmful pollution in residential areas.

Barbecue smoke and skin absorption

Researchers have found that the harmful PAHs in barbecue smoke not only enter the body by inhaling smoke and consuming its residue on foods, but also by absorption through the skin.

One study concluded that “outdoor exposure to barbecue fumes (particularly dermal contact) may have become a significant but largely neglected source of health hazards to the general population and should be well-recognized.”

A shirtless young boy stands in front of a smoky barbecue grill.
The harmful PAHs in barbecue smoke can be absorbed through the skin.

Neighbors are deprived of their own backyards

Backyard burning deprives neighboring residents of the use of their own backyards or gardens. As the advocacy group Families for Clean Air tells us, “We all deserve to have healthy air and to enjoy our backyards without breathing in the pollution from an outdoor fire.”

Residential wood burning references