For me, looking at the patterns of fireplace chimney soot inside the chimney flue shown above is much like reading tea leaves, only scientific. The soot stains and the water streaks within the stains tell me a story.
The people who owned the fireplace connected to this chimney were experiencing ill symptoms that prompted them to call me for an indoor environmental investigation of their home.
When performing investigations where my clients experience symptoms with unknown causes, it’s important for me to inspect for all potential contaminants sources that could collectively contribute to their symptoms, including fireplaces.
What are the symptoms caused by fireplaces?
The most common symptoms of a malfunctioning or improperly used fireplace is:
- Headaches and migraines
- Memory loss
- Chronic fatigue
- Allergy symptoms
- Asthma symptoms
These symptoms can continue long after a fireplace is no longer in use. Soot particles that escape fireplaces and woodstoves can stay airborne for hours and even days; then unknowingly inhaled by occupants.
How does the fireplace chimney flue explain an illness?
1) The patterns of soot inside this chimney flue indicate significant air leakage escaping from the house up through the chimney. This condition results in wasted energy dollars, but more seriously, draws in displacement air through exterior walls that can bring in a variety of hidden contaminants.
2) The stains also indicate breaches through the joints of the chimney flue tiles that could potentially lead to a house fire, but more commonly cause hidden water damage that can lead to mold growth.
3) The stains are also evidence of back-drafting conditions that result in subtle carbon monoxide poisoning, and toxic carbon soot particles that do not exit the chimney as they should.
A single or combination of these conditions can cause homeowners to experience a variety of symptoms.
When these conditions are occurring there will often be visible soot on the front of a fireplace just above the firebox.
When gas fireplace inserts are used, or if there’s a black metal screen/door frame around the fireplace opening, a white paper towel can be used to wipe the surface and determine if a problem exists.
How common are these problems?
I inspect many wood burning fireplaces, gas fireplace inserts, and wood stoves for possible sources of airborne contaminants. Ventless fireplaces, also known as alcohol fireplaces, can also contaminate indoor air.
The chief culprit is toxic carbon soot particles that escape fireplaces and woodstoves. The photo above shows what one soot particle looks like underneath a microscope. The toxic chemicals in the soot particle look the same as oil or gasoline floating on water.
Secondarily, the concerns are insufficient oxygen indoors which can cause another wide range of health problems, and subtle carbon monoxide poisoning due to levels that are not quite high enough to set off an alarm and warn occupants.
Over the years, I’ve witnessed so many unhealthy and unsafe conditions in homes that I was compelled to write books on gas fireplaces, wood fireplaces, ventless fireplaces, and wood-burning stoves. In these books, I not only teach how these appliances can cause health issues, but I also explain all the fire/safety issues, and the scamming techniques used by installers and service companies. The books are:
How to Buy and Safely Use Woodstoves
Many people who have fireplaces and wood burning stoves in their homes have little knowledge on how to use them correctly, or whether they pose a danger to their health or safety.
If you own or plan on installing a fireplace or wood stove, these books will not only help protect your health and safety but will reveal things that fireplace professionals either don’t know or will deliberately not tell you.
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