Bonfires are lit across the world, whether for celebrating or to get rid of garden waste. While burning wood and other materials may seem harmless, are bonfires actually causing long-term environmental harm?
We all know smoke is a major air pollutant and can contain many chemicals, so it’s no surprise that bonfires contribute a lot to air pollution.
However, the material burnt can also add even more toxicity to the air, and all of it can cause harm to human health while also contributing to global warming.
Are bonfires eco-friendly?
While fires occur naturally, man-made bonfires are used for entertainment and human purposes, many of which are disruptive to wildlife and can be harmful to the environment.
So why are bonfires harmful to the environment?
- Air pollution
- Health effects
- Safety concerns (like fire spreading)
Any kind of fire emits smoke which includes pollutants, and the material being burned can include even more noxious fumes and particles.
People with existing health conditions, such as lung conditions, are particularly vulnerable to air pollution, especially smoke. If you suffer from asthma, bronchitis, or a heart condition you may be more at risk of damaging health effects.
Similarly, wildlife and plants can be harmed by air pollution even if the fire isn’t close enough to burn or threaten them. Many bonfires are also lit on piles of garden waste, where many animals take refuge temporarily or for hibernation.
Fires can also spread easily and get out of control quickly. Many people aren’t aware of proper fire safety. Bonfires could spread to fences, buildings, trees, and other plants. This spread can cause further damage if the fire explodes bottles, cans, and aerosols.
The potential damage one bonfire can do to your local environment is immense. If the fire catches on vegetation, it can spread and ruin both food sources and habitats alike. Even afterward, ashes from a bonfire can hold toxic levels of chemicals that could be spread by the wind and wildlife.
Why are bonfires bad?
In many places, there are no regulations for when bonfires can be lit, so it’s very hard for people to protect themselves from air pollution before it’s too late. Have you ever stepped outside to be assaulted by the smell of smoke? By that point, the air pollution is already in the air and entering your lungs.
People are encouraged to warn neighbors before lighting bonfires but this is extremely rare and it won’t help wildlife or visitors to the area.
Smoke can also hang in the air on damp days with minimal wind, while windy days can blow the smoke across a wider area before it disperses. Smoke will always have an impact on the air quality, both immediately and for hours or even days afterward.
Pollutants from smoke can also become trapped in vegetation and water sources, causing further damage to the environment.
According to Smithsonian Magazine, bonfire smoke can act as both air pollutants and “climate forcers” as they can contribute to climate change in either the short or long term.
How much pollution does a bonfire create?
A fire naturally creates pollution thanks to releasing carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, and fine particulate matter into the atmosphere.
The University of Leeds found that the pollution emitted on bonfire night included elevated concentrations of soot and other pollutants. The levels of so-called ‘black carbon’ were persistently high on multiple nights across two years around the Bonfire Night celebrations.
Many bonfires will use all manner of wood, including broken furniture and treated wood such as particleboard. You may think that because they’re made of wood that there’s no problem with burning them, but in fact, this wood has been treated with a number of chemicals.
Wood can be treated with:
- Preservative chemicals like formaldehyde
- Pressurized chemicals
Wood that has been treated and/or painted is likely to release toxic chemicals when burned. These include pollutants and toxic fumes.
Pressure-treated wood is not safe to burn because it also releases harmful chemicals and pollutants in the air, such as chromate copper arsenate (CCA). Exposure to CCA can cause illness, and while it has been restricted in recent decades there are still many old pieces of furniture that were pressure-treated.
Untreated wood can also introduce more pollution, depending on the type of wood.
Some people even add plastics to the bonfire, which should never be done. Plastics contain multitudes of toxic chemicals which, when burnt, are released into the air with smoke. This can have even more consequences for our health and environment.
How much CO2 does a bonfire make?
It’s hard to determine how much CO2 the average bonfire makes, as the material used can have a major effect on this.
French scientists found that burning garden waste burned on a bonfire produced up to 30 times more smoke compared to burning logs in a stove. Smoke can contain many different chemicals, including carbon dioxide, and there are too many variables to determine how much could be produced by garden waste.
Do bonfires emit carbon monoxide?
Bonfires release carbon monoxide like most open fires. Standing around a bonfire or roasting marshmallows means you’ll be standing well within range to inhale the carbon monoxide as well.
Are bonfires carcinogenic?
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, particle pollution, such as smoke and soot, is not only linked to lung and throat irritation but also lung cancer.
It’s also possible that burning wood treated with formaldehyde could release carcinogens. Formaldehyde is present in pressed-wood products, according to the National Cancer Institute, and already naturally occurs in small amounts in solid wood.
How do you make bonfires more eco-friendly?
To reduce the environmental impact of bonfires, it’s best to ditch your own bonfire and instead attend a public or community bonfire. You want to minimize as much waste and pollution associated with bonfires as possible.
By attending a public bonfire, you’re helping reduce the number of fires in your area by choosing not to have a personal bonfire. This reduces emissions, which in turn helps reduce the health effects suffered by your neighbors and local wildlife.
If you need to burn wood, make sure to only burn firewood and materials you are certain are safe. Keep the fire small and avoid creating too much smoke, and always ensure you put the fire out instead of leaving it with embers.
Make sure to also:
- Use ethically sourced firewood
- Use natural firelighters
- Dispose of waste