You May Not Be Able To See It, But It Is Still Dangerous.

Forest Fire Smoke | Photo by LearnSkin

One of the most dangerous jobs you can have is a firefighter. They have higher risks when it comes to heart disease, heart attacks, strokes, and lung problems including Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) and asthma.

COPD Diagram | Image by

The firefighters of today have much better protection than the “firemen” of old. I think the greatest improvement is the use of the breathing apparatus to prevent smoke inhalation while fighting the fire.

Firefighter In Full Protective Gear | Photo by

The only problem is that they take the gear off when they are outside the burning building. That means they can still inhale the smoke residue that remains in the ambient air. Firefighters are trained to be in great physical condition and to take all the precautions necessary to stay that way and yet they still suffer from the effects of the acrid smoke.

Substation Wildfire | Photo by The Statesman Journal

What about the rest of us? We don’t have to run into a smoke-filled building to rescue people and put out a fire, but we can be exposed to the same bad air if we are in or near a building that is burning. There is another situation that we, as individuals, cannot control and that is the smoke and other contaminants that can be in the air we breathe.

Latest Wildfires
NWCC Wildfire Map 8.18.18 | Image by NWCC

The worst case scenario for us can and does occur during late spring and throughout the summer months here in the Pacific Northwest. The cause of this bad air is wildfire. We have already had some relatively small wildfires in Western Oregon, but so far the Eugene-Springfield area has not had to deal with the acrid eye irritating, and throat clogging smoke, but we can be assured sooner or later it will happen.

A May 21, 2019 article titled “Could US wildfires be contributing to heart disease?” delved into this issue. Written by Adam Dove from the Carnegie Mellon University Department of Chemical Engineering. What exactly is the real problem with the smoke? Quoting the article “Certain nanoscale particles in the atmosphere known as organic aerosols – particles released when organic material like trees and other plant matter are burned – have been linked to an increased risk of heart disease, and even death.” The areas in and immediately nearby the fire have the highest concentrations of these particles, but they can travel long distances from the burn area and can create just as many problems for people who are nowhere near the wildfire. Scientists have used computer models to see where the plume of particles will go, but they seem to have made certain assumptions about how particles would affect humans based on how the aerosols reacted with the atmosphere.

Professor Spyros Pandis | Photo by

The article quotes a recent paper published in Atmospheric Environment authored by a professor of chemical engineering, Spyros Pandis, the head and professor of mechanical engineering, Alan Robinson, and a chemical engineering Ph.D alumna, Laura Posner. They stated the initial issue “Biomass burning is a major global source of organic aerosols.” “Biomass burning organic aerosol can contribute significantly to organic aerosol concentrations both locally and far downwind of fires.”

Secondary Organic Aerosols | Image by

There are two types of organic aerosols to deal with: Primary Organic Aerosol (POA) and Secondary Organic Aerosol (SOA). POA consists of the particles that are emitted directly into the atmosphere while SOA is formed when “some of the products of volatile organic compound oxidation condense in the atmosphere.”  They say the current computer models focus on the POA movement through the air but not the SOA.

Quoting Professor Spyros Pandis ” Atmospheric chemistry acts as a booster producing additional particulate matter as the plume moves away from the fire one or two days later. The effects, of course, get smaller as one gets away from the fire, but it can remain significant up to 600 miles away – even if it’s no longer visible as thick smoke. This enhancement is stronger during warm sunny days.” Their team developed a computer model that will better help predict where the smoke plumes will go and just what aerosols are contained in the smoke.

A final quote sums the situation up “The evidence suggests that these emissions are just as bad for our health as that of other combustion sources, such as vehicle and industrial emissions. The emissions from wildfires contain thousands of complex organic compounds, some of them carcinogenic.”

Protect Your Lungs | Image by The Lung Institute

Now that we understand just how dangerous these emissions are we should do more to prevent wildfires. The other thing we can do is to make sure we stay away from the wildfire smoke as much as possible by limiting our outdoor activities and keeping our homes closed up when wildfire smoke penetrates our airspace.

Let me know what you would like me to talk about or explain. You can email me at: [email protected].

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