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What Is It About Wildfire Smoke That’s So Bad For Our Health?

As extreme weather events such as wildfires happen more frequently due to climate change, and as they happen closer to homes, scientists are taking a careful look at the implications for our health.

In a study published in Exposure and Health, Professor Ilias Kavouras of the Graduate School of Public Health and Health Policy and adjunct professor Marie-Cecile G. Chalbot of City Tech took a step toward connecting the specific chemical compounds that make up wildfire smoke with respiratory illnesses.

“Detailed chemical characterization allows for more precise health risk assessment,” Kavouras explained, because different compounds have different toxicological or carcinogenic properties.

The researchers conducted their study during prescribed burns done by The Nature Conservancy in Alabama, using these managed fires as experimental stand-ins for wildfires. In either case, wildland firefighters generally have less respiratory protection than those fighting structural fires in urban areas.

Kavouras, Chalbot, and colleagues collected samples of smoke that represented the amount of exposure a firefighter might experience. In the lab, they then measured the particles present in the smoke and identified various hydrocarbons. They also discovered that there is a greater concentration of these particles at lower elevations, where smoke can accumulate.

While scientists have been able to relate exposure to wildfire smoke with health problems like acute bronchitis and pneumonia, the connections to specific components of the smoke are still unclear. Smoke is a complex mixture of things, making it hard to study. Other scientists have identified some of the components but only enough to account for 20% of the mass of smoke particles, the authors say.

“The ultimate goal is to develop devices, tools, and strategies to eliminate exposure to harmful pollutants that cause adverse health conditions including cancer and heart disease,” Kavouras said.

Beyond SUM

Work By

Ilias Kavouras (Professor, Environmental, Occupational, and Geospatial Health Sciences) | Profile 1
Marie-Cecile Chalbot (Adjunct Assistant Professor) | Profile 1

Bonus Content

"Wildfire smoke inhalation puts firefighters at risk" (Graduate School of Public Health and Health Policy)