Sam Harris, in a recent blog post, relays a bit of research documenting the harmful effects of wood smoke. He then compares the unwillingness of wood-burning fireplace fans to accept the scientific evidence as tantamount to religious belief, and thinks that even libertarians should support a ban on the burning of wood in the home.

I think Harris is overreacting here. We are exposed to lots of harmful things: the nitrate preservatives in packaged meats, the salmonella bacteria in poultry, the radioactive radon gas in our homes; the list goes on. But none of these things is harmful in small enough quantities. We have good reason to be skeptical whether the occasional fire constitutes a public menace.

Why?

The body’s response to exposure to airborne particulates by inhalation (or ingestion of toxins in food, etc.) is usually modeled mathematically as a dose-response relationship. In other words, occasionally inhaling a small quantity of airborne particulates has no measurable biological impact — no harm to you. The risk of harm goes up in a non-linear way with both the amount and frequency of exposure, depicted graphically as an ‘S’- shaped curve.

Harris writes as if any level of exposure to smoke from our fireplaces is cause for alarm. Is this true? Should the exposure-risk relationship should be modeled in a different (non-dose-dependent) way? Unfortunately, he does not report whether the paper he cites in his post delves into this crucial question.

What is a critically thinking recreational fireplace user to do with all this? I say: burn, baby burn — within reason.