Wildfires: The Air We Breathe

Published: Aug. 29, 2019 at 6:07 PM AKDT
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Wildfire smoke contains particles that, if inhaled, can enter your lungs. When your body detects this exposure, it can trigger an inflammatory response that impacts breathing. The elderly, very young, and those with lung disease are more susceptible to this risk.

There are other risks associated with inhaled toxins after a wildfire consumes a home or property. Depending on what they are made of, household items may release dangerous chemicals when burned, some of which have known links to lung disease and cancer risk.

"They are very different but equally dangerous," Jeffrey Demain, founder of the Allergy, Asthma and Immunology Center of Alaska told KTUU Thursday, referring to wildland fires in which trees and other natural materials burn, and the burn scar of those fires after they've torn through a home or neighborhood.

"When you start burning those materials, such as plastics or styrofoam or you start burning wood, even pressurized wood, particleboard, even cardboard, there's a release of chemicals. Even low-level exposure to those chemicals can cause severe, acute respiratory events," Demain said.

Particleboard, some fiberboard, and hardwood plywood contain formaldehyde resins. Cardboards may contain urea-formaldehyde, paraffin, and fungicides. Pressure-treated wood may contain arsenic and other chemicals. While drapes, furniture foams, wood finishes, and sealants -- items that contain polyurethanes -- may release a yellow smoke that contains hydrogen cyanide, an extremely dangerous gas if inhaled.

"It's not just an issue of being careful with the ash pits and the actual fires. When you are burning furniture and these other materials, that's a great risk," Demain said.

Demain advises staying away from any items that are still warm or smoldering. Because some of the furniture foams can burn for quite a long time, Demain encourages caution for returning property owners.

"When they are working around the debris and trying to find whatever they can and what's left and this couch is smoldering, they are going to be breathing those chemicals," Demain said.

According to Demain, the N95 masks will likely do a good job filtering our many potential chemicals. But avoidance and reduced exposure remain the better strategy.

"If everything is cool and there is no fire and no smolder, they are probably safe. But I would have great caution when you are working around those burned plastics and materials," Demain said.

To learn more about chemical exposure and wildfires, visit the links to the right.

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