Thursday 19 October 2017

An invisible killer hidden within forest fire smoke

'People with heart disease or diabetes are at particular risk, as are the elderly, young children and pregnant women' (stock photo)
'People with heart disease or diabetes are at particular risk, as are the elderly, young children and pregnant women' (stock photo)

By Anthony King

Smoke from wildfires can permanently damage health, leading Irish and international scientists have warned.

"Anybody who has pre-existing respiratory conditions such as asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease is going to be feeling the impact," said Professor Sarah Henderson, senior scientist at the British Columbia Centre for Disease Control, in Vancouver, Canada.

People with heart disease or diabetes are at particular risk, as are the elderly, young children and pregnant women.

Dozens of wildfires raged across Ireland last week, with the most extensive at Cloosh Valley, Galway, destroying thousands of acres of forest and bog.

The smoke is a complex mix of carbon-containing particles, but what you cannot see is most harmful, said Prof Henderson.

"The particles that measure less than 2.5 microns are a fraction of the size of a human hair across and can make it deep into the human lungs. The higher the concentration of those particles, the more risk there is to human health," she warned.

Prof John Wenger, of UCC, agreed and said: "The key concern is the small invisible particles.

"These particles have a much longer lifetime and can remain in the air for up to a week. They have two effects. If you breathe them in they go straight to the lungs and can cause severe breathing difficulties, especially for people with asthma, and they can also cause cardiovascular problems."

NUI Galway's Citizen Science Air Pollution network recorded a spike in air pollution last Tuesday, when particulate matter hit 20 times the normal background level.

A change in wind direction pushed the plume over the city.

The levels of fine particulate matter at Mace Head, 40 miles downwind of the fire, were 160 micrograms per m3 of air. Five would be more usual.

Sunday Independent

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