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How harmful is smoke from wildfires that burn buildings, cars and other human-made stuff? We don’t fully know

Spokane Fire District 8 Firefighters
Remnants of burned buildings from a 2018 California wildfire.

When wildfires burn in the Inland Northwest, the smoke that’s produced is usually made up of particles derived from burned trees and other vegetation. Days with particularly thick smoke pose health hazards, especially for people with respiratory problems. And when the smoke is extremely heavy, the risk expands to everyone.

But when a fire starts in – or burns into – a populated area and begins burning buildings and other human-made things, many other substances join the smoke plume. Those particles come from many sources – including building materials, paints, insulation, fuels, and household chemicals kept in garages or under the kitchen sink.

Experts who study air quality, including Chris Migliaccio of the University of Montana, don’t fully know how those particles can affect human health.

“The chemistry is going to be vastly different, and as a result, the toxicity,” Migliaccio recently told Spokane Public Radio. “These are areas of ongoing research [but] chances are, those chemicals from things like paint and cars, that the toxicity is going to be a little bit worse. Or a lot worse. We don’t know.”

Migliaccio said the topic of smoke from artificial materials was a hot topic at a recent air quality conference he attended. Much of the research about the link between smoke and health has focused on human-generated pollution in urban areas, Migliaccio said. Research investigating the effects of wildfire smoke derived from artificial materials is brand-new.

“It’s a new field and we’re still feeling our way around that. Everybody’s got a slightly different system, and we’re trying to compare so that we can come up with a way to create a data set so we can have an idea of, okay, chemically how bad is this, and then what’s the safe duration?” Migliaccio said. “[Is a] single exposure okay, or not?”

Even without the detailed data air quality scientists would love to have, Migliaccio said, smoke generated by wildfires – regardless of its source – is hazardous to health, especially for people with breathing issues.

“As wildfire is increasing, we’re realizing we need to study this effect…especially places like Washington, if not every year, then every other year, we’re getting inundated by smoke,” Migliaccio said.

As scientists continue to figure out how smoke from different course affects health, general safety rules are still considered effective, such as staying indoors and using an air purifier.

Migliaccio suggested creating a “safe space” in the home, which is a single room where most daily activity can occur, closed off from the outside and outfitted with a quality air purifier that runs all day. That would decrease exposure to harmful particles in wildfire smoke and therefore reduce some of the health risks associated with inhaling the smoke.

Brandon Hollingsworth is your All Things Considered host. He has served public radio audiences for fifteen years, primarily in reporting, hosting and interviewing. His previous ports-of-call were WUOT-FM in Knoxville, Tennessee, and Alabama Public Radio. His work has been heard nationally on Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Here and Now and NPR’s top-of-the-hour newscasts.