The effects of air pollution caused by fire smoke vary, depending on your health and the intensity and contents of the smoke pollution. Long-term exposure is bad for everyone. Short-term can be harmful to some. The best thing to do is remove yourself from the area, getting to areas of better air quality, and stay there until air quality has improved.
Fire smoke air pollution has been around since the Stone Age, when humans first learned to use fire for warmth, cooking, defense, and to herd prey animals. Fire smoke air pollution has marked mankind’s march across the globe, and the rise of civilization. The effects of air pollution caused by fire smoke have grown steadily, and awareness of them is now reaching critical heights.
Fire smoke air pollution comes from many sources. Agricultural burning of crop waste and to clear undergrowth for planting is a major source of fire smoke air pollution in rural areas and underdeveloped nations. Wild fires contribute to fire smoke air pollution every summer in heavily forested, dry Western U.S. States. Neighborhood burning of backyard trash is a significant source of fire smoke air pollution. Even backyard barbecues emit fire smoke air pollution. In winter months, wood-burning stoves can contribute up to half of particulate matter air pollution.
The effects of air pollution caused by fire smoke are as many and varied as the sources of such air pollution. That’s because fire smoke contains hundreds of ingredients that can have ill effects on human health. They include:
- Tiny smoke particles that are inhaled deeply into the lungs, where they remain for years. They cause structural damage and chemical changes. Other harmful chemicals adhere to particles to be drawn deeply into the lungs.
- Carbon monoxide interferes with the blood’s ability to absorb oxygen and carry it throughout the body. Lack of oxygen impairs thinking and reflexes; causes heart pain; and is linked to lower birth weight and increased newborn deaths. In high doses over extended periods, carbon monoxide can kill.
- Formaldehyde and other organic gases found in fire smoke air pollution irritate eyes, nose, and throat; long term exposure can cause cancer of these organs. They can lead to asthma, emphysema, and other chronic lung diseases. They can cause allergic reactions in sensitive people.
- Nitrogen oxides irritate eyes and respiratory system. They may damage the immune system, impairing the body’s ability to fight respiratory infections. They also lead to asthma, emphysema, and other lung disorders.
Those most at risk of the effects of air pollution caused by fire smoke include:
- Fetuses, infants, and children
- People with asthma, bronchitis, emphysema, or pneumonia
- People with other heart, lung, or circulatory system diseases
- The elderly, whose heart and lung functions are already weaker
- Cigarette smokers and ex-smokers
Young people are especially susceptible because their lungs are not fully developed and because the amount of air they breath — accompanied by fire smoke — is a greater in proportion to their body masses.
Even healthy people are at risk from the effects of air pollution caused by fire smoke. People accustomed to regular exercise are advised to abstain during days of heavy fire smoke air pollution. Exercise causes one to breath more air faster, inhaling fire smoke air pollution deeply into the lungs.
The effects of air pollution caused by fire smoke are serious and long-term. They can range from minor irritation of mucous membranes to sudden death from anoxia or heart attacks. Protect yourself by limiting outdoor activities during times of high fire smoke pollution, and by minimizing the amount of fire smoke air pollution that you release.