Wildfires: what are the health risks of smoke?

With climate change leading to higher temperatures and drought, forest fires are on the increase around the world. This is particularly the case in France with the fires that have occurred in the Gard, Pyrénées-Orientales, Gironde and Var regions in recent weeks.

The impact of fires on fauna and flora is known, but what about human health?

Reading time: 4 minutes

 

Summary

More heat waves mean more fires
Harmful pollutants
Impact on human health
Some things you can do to protect yourself

More heat waves mean more fires

With global warming, heat waves are becoming more frequent, intense and earlier in the year.

Greenhouse gas emissions from human activities have warmed the planet by about 1,2 degrees Celsius since pre-industrial times. This figure, which may seem small, has drastic consequences. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), predicts that droughts will intensify and forest fires will become more frequent.

It is important to know that fires can be started by:

🧑 Human activities

⚡️ Natural cause

Harmful pollutants

A fire produces two types of smoke:

  • Black smoke, which contains benzene, formaldehyde, cyanide and volatile organic compounds, especially carbon monoxide.
  • White smoke, which includes fine and ultrafine particles capable of penetrating the respiratory tract to the pulmonary alveoli.

The composition of this smoke depends on many factors: the fuel (type of wood, vegetation, etc.), the temperature of the fire, the winds, different weather conditions and the amount of water.  The more water there is, the whiter the smoke will be, but this does not mean that it is less harmful!

Pollution that travels thousands of kilometres

Even if the country where you live is not experiencing forest fires, air pollution can still be affected. This is because, the smoke can travel thousands of kilometres. In case of rain, the soil can also be polluted by these harmful particles.

Exposure to smoke from forest fires impacts human health

The health effects of fire smoke are determined by various factors such as the duration of exposure, the amount of air inhaled, health status and the concentration of smoke in the air. Today, the term « exposome », is used to describe the totality of environmental exposures to external and environmental factors that a human organism experiences throughout its life, as it is this cumulative effect that is most dangerous.

☁️ Impact of black smoke on health

These smokes are immediately dangerous and are responsible for asphyxiation, coughing and burning sensations on the eyes, nose and skin, a reduction in lung function and, in more severe cases, death. These fumes may contain compounds classified as carcinogenic to humans (benzene, formaldehyde, etc.).

☁️ Impact of white smoke on health

White smoke, on the other hand, present a longer-term danger. Contrary to what one might think, white smoke from forest fires can be much more insidious. It contains many more particulate matter that may be composed of carbon, sulphur, nitrogen, heavy metals or organic chemicals. Among these particles, those with a diameter < 2,5 μm (PM2.5, PM1…)  penetrate deep into the respiratory tract, into the bloodstream and can cause damage to the lungs, heart and brain.

Good to know : By analysing 14 years of hospitalization data, researchers found that fine particles from forest fires cause up to 10% of respiratory admissions, compared to 1% for other emission sources

Forest fires also release significant amounts of mercury into the air (naturally present in trees through absorption by leaves), which can lead to speech, hearing and walking disorders, muscle weakness and vision problems in people of all ages. (OMS) The global estimate of premature deaths attributed to forest fires is more than339 000 each year according to one study.

Some things you can do to protect your health from fire

Children, pregnant women, the elderly and people with heart or lung conditions (asthma, chronic bronchitis, heart failure, etc.) must remain vigilant because they are the most sensitive to the harmful effects of exposure to smoke.. Remember that forest fire smoke contains many components identical to those found in cigarette smoke, which is known to be ahealth risk (cancers, respiratory problems, cardiovascular problems, etc.).

To protect your health from smoke:

👉 Stay indoors unless otherwise ordered to evacuate

👉 Keep doors and windows closed

👉 If you use air conditioning, turn on the air recirculation function to prevent outside air from entering your home

👉 Avoid exercising outdoors

👉 When driving, keep windows and air vents closed. Only use the air conditioner in “recirculating air” mode »

👉 Monitor air quality reports

In conclusion, air pollution from forest fires is associated with increased morbidity and mortality, so it is imperative to be vigilant and protect yourself from fire smoke during the summer period.

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