A fire in the fireplace or woodstove can help you almost forget winter.
Just don't expect Joseph Otis Minott to enjoy it with you. The executive director of the Clean Air Council, based in Philadelphia, doesn't think of the words toasty and cozy when he thinks of fires.
He thinks of air pollution.
Like burning leaves - the ones that fall from trees in au- tumn and the ones we grow as tobacco - burning wood emits many harmful compounds, in- cluding the carcinogen benzene.
The emission that most concerns Minott is fine particulates - microscopic bits of matter that lodge deep in the lungs, often with other pollutants attached.
They've been linked to premature death in people with heart or lung disease, nonfatal heart attacks, decreased lung function, and a worsening of other respiratory symptoms, according to the U.S. Environ- mental Protection Agency.
That fire "may be nostalgic and give you the warm-and- fuzzies," Minott said, "but envi- ronmentally, there are issues."
The emissions can be bad for you if you're in the same room as the fire, and bad for your neighbors if they're downwind of your chimney.
In general, woodstoves are more efficient than fireplaces - especially stoves or fireplace inserts with catalytic combustors that reduce emissions. But fireplaces are used more sporadically.
What concerns Minott even more is that wood is being promoted as a renewable resource, a greener option to oil or other fossil fuels. (Not to mention a cheaper one, especially for someone living on a wooded property.)
So the nation's 29 million fireplaces and 12 million woodstoves are on the rise. Recent U.S. census figures showed that from 2000 to 2010, home heating with wood and wood pellets grew 34 percent, faster than any other heating fuel.
In all but the most efficient woodstoves, the pollution emitted for the heat generated is higher than for other kinds of fuel, said Kevin Stewart, director of environmental health for the Mid-Atlantic region of the American Lung Association.
"We recognize that this is a growing source of air pollution," he said.
In October, the Clean Air Council and the American Lung Association joined other nonprofits and health groups in suing the EPA to force it to update woodstove and fire- place emissions standards that date to 1988.
But Bret Watson, president of the stove manufacturer Jotul North America, con-
tended "further regulation of modern clean-burning woodstoves will essentially do nothing to improve air-shed quality." He said new stan-
dards wouldn't address the five million to seven million dirty stoves in use now.
To that end, Jotul instituted a stove change-out program over the summer, offering a $300 credit to people who exchanged their old stoves for a new Jotul. The company also donated $10 a stove - a total of $14,500 - to the American Lung Association.
Watson said Jotul would likely repeat the program this year.
John Ackerly, president of the Alliance for Green Heat in Maryland, has a foot in both camps.
"We're a pro-wood-heating group," he said, "but we pretty much agree with the strict regulations that environmental groups want. We think that's the best way for the industry to move forward, to be cleaner."
Cleaner-burning stoves "will allow the sector to take off," he said, "and not play second fid- dle to solar and geothermal."
The alliance recently held a woodstove design challenge, demonstrating that stoves of the future will be automated, with sensors that regulate the air flow to get a more complete burn.
Most people close the air intake too soon, he said. "As long as a human being operates it, even the best stove can create a hell of a lot of smoke."
GreenSpace: Tips for Better Burning
Whatever wood-burning device you have, here are tips for safer and less-polluting wood fires from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Burn Wise program.
Burn only dry wood that has been seasoned at least six months.
Start fires with clean newspaper and dry kindling.
Burn hot fires.
Never burn garbage, plastic, or pressure-treated wood.
Have your chimney cleaned annually by a certified chimney sweep.
"GreenSpace," about the environment and health, appears every other week, alternating with Art Carey's "Well Being" column.