Wildfires, along with other extreme weather events, are becoming increasingly common due to our overheating planet. If you are in the vicinity of a wildfire, even if you escape direct harm, you are still at risk from smoke, which can cause significant problems for respiratory and heart health.
According to a new study published in Science Advances, escaping the impacts of wildfire smoke isn’t as simple as turning on an air purifier. The smoke is also a significant source of hard-to-eliminate volatile organic compounds, or VOCs.
What are VOCs?
VOCs “are compounds that easily become gases at room temperature. They include everything from limonene in lemons to benzene in gasoline. VOCs aren’t always hazardous to human health, but many VOCs in smoke are,” wrote Colorado State University Professor of Chemistry Delphine Farmer, one of the study’s co-authors, for The Conversation, republished by Ars Technica.
Farmer explained that her research showed that VOCs inside the home are more difficult to get rid of than other smoke particles. They linger on surfaces and are released back into the air.
“While smoke VOC concentrations in our test house decreased with time, they remained persistently elevated above normal levels,” Farmer wrote.
Why is this concerning?
VOCs can include carcinogens and lead to respiratory problems. As VOCs from things like gas stoves and cleaning products are already lingering in our homes, we definitely don’t want to allow a whole bunch more of them to stick around after wildfires.
What do the experts suggest?
Luckily, according to Farmer, there is a very simple and effective solution to VOCs in your home.
“The good news is that cleaning surfaces by vacuuming, dusting, and mopping with a commercial, nonbleach solution did the trick,” she wrote. It stands to reason that a vacuum with a HEPA filter is important for this, though, as other experts have advised against vacuuming due to its ability to whip the VOCs back up into the air for you to breathe and that it could otherwise be worth waiting until the air has begun to clear up. Mopping, by comparison, should be fully safe regardless of mop type.
The study concluded that “surface cleaning activities (vacuuming, mopping, and dusting) physically removed surface reservoirs and thus reduced indoor smoke VOC concentrations more effectively than portable air cleaners and more persistently than window opening.”
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