What makes smoke from wildfires so bad to breathe in?
My neighborhood, while thankfully a safe distance from being actually immolated in the fires spread across northern California, is starting to look a little scary. The skies are darkened with the red tint of smoke, and trees just two blocks away are starting to be obscured by the thickening particulate. My third grader is… not taking it well. She’s nervously asking how close we are to the fires, if her aunt further north is safe, and if she should start expecting ash to start falling out of the sky, a scenario she only knows from stories about when a baby in southern California. Parental instinct leads me to try and calm her, but with at least 160,000 acres burned this week, how worried should we be about all this smoke?
Byproducts of burning plants
The smoke from forest fires has a lot of different ingredients. Trees’ and other plants’ exact combinations of cellulose, tannins, oils, waxes and more can create a wide range of chemical byproducts of a fire. Smoke from a burning forest is likely to contain carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, water vapor, hydrocarbons, nitrogen oxides, benzene, formaldehyde, trace minerals and other particulate matter. While that may sound like a big scary list, your body can bounce back from the bigger molecules it inhales pretty well, with only temporary irritation to sensitive tissues in the eyes and respiratory tract. The items that are more worrisome are the tiny particles less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter, around 30 times thinner than a human hair. These minuscule particles can get lodged deep in your lungs, where they can cause more lasting damage to cells.
There are, unfortunately, a lot of health concerns with breathing in too much smoke. Older people, people with compromised hearts or lungs, and of course, growing kids, are all considered to be especially at risk when the air is too polluted. Kids with asthma are probably at the most risk, as irritation can cause their airways to close enough to completely restrict breathing, but anyone who’s lungs are either sensitive or still growing should really avoid breathing hard outdoors if at all possible. Breathing in some particulate is unavoidable— the goal is just to minimize exposure and impact.
Some folks wear dust or surgeons’ masks to try to stay safe, but most of those masks aren’t designed to block the tiny particulate that is of the most concern. Even if you do have an N-95 or P-100 respirator, it needs to fit against your face without gaps, otherwise you’ll end up sucking in particulate you were trying to filter out. Staying inside is probably a safer bet, using air conditioners to help filter the air. If that’s not an option, you may want to look for Clean Air shelters, or even climate controlled malls and businesses, as a way to avoid sucking in too much smoke.
Hazards from flaming houses
The fact that 3,500 buildings have burned down in these wildfires complicates things a bit. Houses these days are packed with a lot of plastics, which burn hot and fast, releasing more toxic and corrosive gasses like hydrogen chloride, phosgene and even hydrochloric acid. Thankfully, most of these won’t be released in high enough concentrations to affect the surrounding areas, and are more commonly issues for firefighters entering burning buildings. In those scenarios, the to big worries are carbon monoxide and cyanide, both of which are odorless, colorless and most dangerous in hot areas with restricted airflows, like a structure fire. Both chemicals restrict your body’s access and use of oxygen, and can be lethal in under ten minutes’ exposure. Again, this isn’t something you need to worry about in a smokey neighborhood downwind of a fire because concentrations each compound will probably be too low to cause that much harm, but it’s something to consider if you’re ever asked to evacuate, as staying in your home may put you and firefighters in much more risk if you need rescuing later on.
If all this weren’t enough, there’s a chance that wildfires are affecting you even if you can’t see the smoke. Global surveys of air quality have found that large forest fires release enough smoke to be detectable on a large scale, even beyond areas where the smoke is visible. In some cases, there are things that can be done to try to mitigate the impact of forest fires, from direct prevention to reducing carbon emissions that raise the world’s temperatures and make fires more likely in the first place.
For now, everyone’s rubbing their eyes, doing a bit more sneezing, and hoping that the fires can be contained before things get too much worse. If waiting things out feels too passive, making donations to the people whose lives have been more directly uprooted by the fires has felt helpful as well.
Source: Wildfire Smoke: A Guide for Public Health Officials by Harriet Ammann, Robert Blaisdell, Michael Lipsett, et al., Environmental Protection Agency