Burning Wood Furniture: How not to Poison Yourself
On Tuesday February 16th 2021, Dallas-Fort Worth Airport recorded a temperature of -2 F, which broke the previous cold record set back in 1903. The Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) declared Energy Emergency Alert 3:
An EEA3 is declared if operating reserves cannot be maintained above 1,375 megawatts. If conditions do not improve, continue to deteriorate or operating reserves drop below 1,000 megawatts and are not expected to recover within 30 minutes, ERCOT will order transmission companies to implement rotating outages.Source: ERCOT’s use of Energy Emergency Alerts.
On Sunday February 14th, Texas hit a record demand of 69,150 megawatts. People panicked. When the power shut off, furnaces, baseboard, boilers, and hydronic heaters shut down. Anything which required electricity was inoperable. Children were freezing and many Texans wondered if this was the end.
The survival instinct kicked in. To keep warm, many Texans started burning fuel which could be found in and around their homes. This included picture frames, bed and sofa frames, fence slats, chairs, and anything else that would give their families warmth until the bitterly cold temperatures passed.
What many did not realize is that most household wood products are treated with toxic chemicals to prevent against degradation. This presents significant risk to anyone breathing the fumes of burning household wood. Which begs the question, what kinds of wood can safely be burned in the fireplace without the risk of harmful chemicals being released?
If there is a single takeaway from this article, that is to keep in mind that any chemicals used in the treatment of lumber will be released at burn time. This absolutely cannot be overlooked as many of these chemicals are toxic.
If you plan to keep your family warm but also keep them safe from breathing in harmful toxins, the chemical agents applied to the wood must be removed or at least significantly eroded prior to burning.
Below are several common types of wood found around the house that could potentially be burned in the fireplace, and some background on each. The goal is to make you aware so that you can best prepare the wood for burning.
Wood left in its unfinished state is safest to burn. That’s not to say you have nothing to be cautious about – carbon monoxide and drifting embers being the most prominent concerns.
Can you burn pressure treated wood?
Like many business practices intended to reduce costs or increase short-term profitability, pressure treated wood has proven to have long term negative effects if not properly used, handled, or disposed of.
Manufacturers have long used toxic chemicals to treat wood in their effort to prolong its durability. One of these chemicals was chromated copper arsenate (CCA) which was used from the early 1930s up until 2003 when an agreement was reached to discontinue its use in residential applications. CCA contains arsenic, the widely known element which naturally occurs in the earth’s crust. Exposure to elevated levels of inorganic arsenic can lead to chronic arsenic poisoning, most often characterized by skin lesions and sometimes cancer.
While CCA is no longer used in current residential manufacturing processes, the EPA does not require the removal of existing products or structures made with CCA.
In addition, pressure treated wood is not without its own toxic chemicals. While it is true that wood treated today is lower in toxicity than in the past, it should still be handled and burned with care.
Below are a few notes on common woods which may be found around the household and what you should be aware of prior to sticking in the fireplace.
Can you burn fence posts?
Fence posts are treated with chemicals to prevent fire, retard fungi and rot. Burning extra or existing fence posts may release toxic fumes into the air. It is not recommended to burn fence posts in a fireplace for this reason.
If you must make use of this, you could use a chemical stripper containing methylene chloride to strip it of all its paint and varnish. Be sure to wear chemical resistant gloves and a respirator when you are working with any kind of chemical stripper!
To be doubly safe, you could then sand down the exterior so that both the varnish and trace treatment elements are completely removed to expose the natural wood. Most likely after this, it is fine to burn.
Can you burn plywood or particleboard?
Plywood, particleboard, or chipboard are all manufactured. With these wood types, wood chips are bound together by a binding agent, often a synthetic resin. The wood is then pressed tightly together, formed, then cut to what you purchase in stores like Lowe’s or Home Depot.
The wood itself would not be toxic if burned but the adhesive used to hold plywood together can be toxic and it may release harmful chemicals when burned.
It is dangerous to burn plywood or particleboard indoors or in any environment which may trap the chemicals in the breathable atmosphere.
Can you burn printed paper?
Generally printed paper is fine to burn, but that does not free it from being a potential safety risk. The danger is not necessarily in the ink as this will often be in low quantities on the paper itself, but the danger could result in the flyaway embers. These may either fly out of the fireplace or stove onto a flammable surface like the carpet or may fly up through the chimney to cause chimney fires.
Can you burn shipping pallets?
Pallets are most often constructed from southern yellow pine or oak wood, which make for great fire fuel. This makes pallet wood excellent for burning if proper safety measures are taken.
Before burning, check the markings on shipping pallets and look specifically for “MB” – which stands for methyl bromide. This pesticide is used to kill the emerald ash borer, an insect whose origination to the US was detected as coming from shipping vessels traveling from China in 2002. If the pallet is marked with “MB” it means the wood has been chemically treated and is likely to release toxic chemicals when burned.
Another pallet type which should be avoided are colored pallets. Colored pallets often communicate specific types of information, including pallet owner, pallet wood type, or that a pallet meets phytosanitary requirements (source).
Additional, safe markings you may find on pallet wood include HT (heat treated), DB (debarked), KD (kiln-dried) and each of these are safe to burn. Look for markings on the pallet wood to determine burnability, and you will be well on your way to using non-toxic wood to heating a gathering area.
To note: Very old pallet wood may have been treated with an arsenic composition to act as both preservative and pest control. It is dangerous to burn wood treated with arsenic.
Can you burn painted or stained furniture?
Painted or stained wood furniture is fine to burn only if the exterior coat has sanded off or stain remover is used, then rinsed off.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recommends against burning stained or painted woods but this is largely due to the paint, stain, or varnish containing harmful chemicals. Older paints are an even greater risk due to lead presence. Lead-based paints were banned in 1978, so be aware of the manufacture date of wood furniture to understand the risks.
As you can tell most woods sold or used commercially have been treated to prolong its life – from mold, pests, or natural degradation.
It is recommended that you understand this and to ensure you have a way of mitigating the toxic fumes that can linger without the proper ventilation system to carry the fumes from the breathable area.
Sanding off the exterior varnish using a belt or orbital sander, applying wood cleaner, stripper, or stain remover are all various ways in which chemicals can be removed from wood prior to burning. Be certain you rinse the wood after applying a chemical to remove any remaining chemical application.
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