Why fire smoke can be worse than other air pollutants

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The explosive growth of forest fires in the western United States has spread smoke to the landscape, posing an increased threat to public health. The 2020 fire season driven by climate change was so bad that it doubled the previous record in California in acres burned, and monitoring the effects of smoke on air quality at home came almost ordinary. This year’s season started devastatingly and there is already a dark sky on the east coast smoke from the west coast forest fires.

Smoke is not your usual air pollution. Small particles in smoke can be up to 10 times more harmful to human health than soot from other things, such as exhaust pipes and factories. diary Nature earlier this year.

The researchers looked at fine particles, also called PM2.5, which are 30 times smaller than the diameter of a human hair follicle. When fuel burns, be it gas or vegetation, it sends these fine particles into the air and sometimes into our bodies. Fine particles from fires resulted in 10 percent more respiratory hospitalizations than without smoke, the study found. Pollution from other sources increased hospitalization by only about one percent, although it was still harmful.

Limit spoke with Rosana Aguilera, research director and postdoctoral researcher at the University of California, San Diego. He guided us through what he and other scientists are doing to better understand what forest fire smoke means to our health.

This interview has been slightly modified for clarity.

What are “fine particles” and why are we worried about them?

The research team I work with studied fine particles because it is one of the main components of forest fires. These particles are unique. Their chemical composition may vary with respect to combustible materials. Consumer smoke and fine particles, such as carbon, heavy metals, can contain a myriad of possible compounds.

We are now focusing on these fine particles in forest fire smoke as forest fire smoke as a source of forest fires is becoming more common in some parts of the United States and the world. Here in California, it is definitely one source of air pollution that seems to be growing in the near future. There are some publications that support the idea that forest fire smoke is one of the main sources of fine particles in the Western United States, for example.

How can these fine particles affect human health?

It is one of the air pollutants of concern because it is small enough to penetrate our respiratory organs and go deep into the lungs. It may also enter the bloodstream and travel to other organs. It can cause breathing difficulties. It can cause irritation and worsen conditions such as asthma and other respiratory diseases and cardiopulmonary diseases.

We mainly deal with acute effects, the answers we get after being exposed to a forest fire for a few days. My research team does not specifically mean long-term effects at this stage, but I think it is an area of ​​research that needs to be expanded. Looking at long-term exposure is a little more complicated because you have to monitor individuals who are exposed to multiple forest fires.

So how does forest fire smoke compare to air pollution from other sources such as cars, trucks and industry?

We found that forest fire fumes may be more detrimental to the increase in hospitalization compared to looking only at smokeless fine particles.

Emissions from traffic can be very different in composition from consumption extinguishers. We have not really looked at the chemical composition of these fine particles in terms of their sources. However, some toxicological studies have looked at it in more detail and find that the toxicity of forest fires may increase. If it goes through the structure, it can pick up some of the chemicals found in houses and other buildings.

What impact will your research hopefully have?

We want to start looking more closely at these different effects of fine particles relative to emission sources and also try to look for more in the chemical composition of different forest fires.

If consumer smoke has a greater impact and if fire smoke is one of the main sources of this type of pollution in the future – or if it already exists – we need to better understand why it is more harmful? And what effects can we expect in the long run?

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