• Outdoors Outdoors

New research finds concerning chemical aftermath from burned buildings and vehicles: 'It's worth ... paying attention to'

"A sizable impact on public health."

Wildfire smoke can cause cancer risk

Photo Credit: iStock

Recently, U.S. cities have filled with smoke from wildfires with significant human health implications. Now new research suggests that wildfires closer to populated areas, which burn buildings and vehicles, create smoke that is even more toxic.

What's happening?

A report published in June in PNAS Nexus focuses on the smoke hazards of fires in the wildland urban interface (WUI), where undeveloped land borders human developments.

This study by scientists from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) suggests that the fires burning in these border areas have "emission factors" that are "several orders of magnitude greater" for some air pollutants than the wildfires that burn purely in the wilderness.

The study was based on reviews of previous research and, therefore, limited in scope, but it indicated that WUI fires could "have a sizable impact on public health."

Why are fires near urban boundaries concerning?

Due to their combustion of manufactured materials as well as natural ones, fires in WUI areas release "acutely toxic and carcinogenic" chemicals, such as certain volatile organic compounds and heavy metals, the researchers remarked

These fires can also have greater public health impacts because they're closer to population centers than other wildfires.

The research connected the findings to our overheating planet, and the study pointed out that "wildfires have … been increasing in intensity with a warming climate and overgrowth of fuels, with some fires experiencing explosive growth."

The study did not explicitly say these borderland fire emissions increase global warming, but it did say that "urban fuels may contribute a sizeable portion of the toxic emissions into the atmosphere." The researchers also acknowledged that there are still important gaps in understanding these fuels and how they burn.

Amara Holder, an EPA engineer who led the study, told Smart Cities Dive that events such as the 2017 Tubbs Fire in northern California have created pollution similar to annual emissions from industrial sources nearby.

"These small events are comparable to [pollution] that happens over an entire year," Holder told the outlet.

What's being done about wildfires?

Holder told Smart Cities that air quality agencies would do well to prioritize further monitoring and research of pollution caused by wildfires near populated areas.

"It's worth noticing and paying attention to it," Holder said.

As for what individuals can do to stay healthy around wildfire smoke, monitoring air quality levels and staying indoors (safely away from wildfires) are good first steps. Wearing high-quality masks, using air purifiers or HEPA filters or DIY filters, and avoiding indoor activities like smoking helps.

Bigger picture, any efforts to reduce contributions to heat-trapping pollution, perhaps even by not burning fuels at home, may help the world avoid extreme heat and droughts that create conditions for wildfires.

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