Forest fires can cause loss of life and millions of dollars worth of damage. They endanger forest populations and many times any residential areas situated nearby. While the possible danger and destruction from the flames is easy to see, there is at least one other dangerous component to a forest fire that may not be as quickly evident. That very real hazard to health is smoke.
Wood smoke contains certain chemicals that are common to any combustion event. However, there are some toxins that are peculiar to wood smoke and more than a few of them are dangerous to your lungs and your health. These include formaldehyde, sulfur dioxide and carbon monoxide. Other gases in the smoke are known lung-irritants, such as nitrogen oxides. Wood smoke also contains polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH). PAHs are suspected to be carcinogenic. Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons are formed when carbon burns and are the same carcinogenic substances found in bacon and other meat cooked at high temperatures.
Wood smoke also contains fine particulate matter. These particles are too small to be filtered out by the nose and are inhaled into the lungs. When these particles settle deep in the lungs, they can cause scarring. Carcinogens in the smoke adhere to these particles and are also carried deep into the lungs. The risk of developing certain health problems is increased greatly by inhaling this particulate matter. In particular, increased risks of heart disease, stroke and COPD can be directly tied to exposure to wood smoke.
You don’t have to live in close proximity to a forest fire to be exposed to the dangers from its smoke. In May of 2010, residents all along Eastern Massachusetts were calling their local fire departments, reporting a grey haze of smoke lingering over neighborhoods. Investigation by firefighters found no local fires. The smoke was actually coming from a series of forest fires burning in Quebec, Canada, more than 300 miles away.
Keep an eye on air quality reports if there is a danger of a smoke haze in your area. If the smoke from a forest fire affects the air quality where you live, there are several steps you should take to limit your exposure and protect your health.
If there is a grey, smokey haze hanging over the area where you live, it’s best not to venture outside any more than you absolutely have to. Keep outdoor physical activity to a minimum. Although you might feel safer by wearing a paper mask, be aware that they are designed to stop large particles in the air and smoke particles will pass right through the mask’s filter. The best way to avoid inhaling this particulate and the toxins in the smoke is to stay inside.
Keep indoor air clean
Keep doors and windows closed. Run air filters if you have them, or air conditioning if the temperature is hot. Make sure that the outside air intake vent is closed, if your air conditioning unit has one. Don’t vacuum as this will stir up particles into the air. Don’t smoke or burn anything in the house that will add to the air pollution. This includes wood stoves, fireplaces, gas stoves, and even candles.
Even when indoors you are not completely safe from the fine particulate in a smoke haze, as it can enter buildings even when doors and windows are closed. But if you follow the tips above, you can greatly decrease your exposure. Breathing the particulate and toxins in wood smoke can cause people with certain health conditions to experience shortness of breath, heart palpitations, fatigue or even stroke. If you have any existing medical conditions such as asthma or heart disease, it is important to protect the quality of the air you breathe to avoid risks to your health.