Skip to content

Wildfire Exposure

Raging wildfires pose significant economic, ecological and human health and safety threats. Wildfires have grown exponentially in the Western United States with millions of acres destroyed on an annual basis. Increasing arid climates, extreme temperatures and neglected forest management are leading to more extreme wildfire events.

During wildfires, smoke laden with pollutants enters the atmosphere. This means that people will be breathing hazardous smoke. Smoke plumes can travel long distances and present for widespread human exposure for extended periods of time.

One of the pollutants of concern is particulate matter (PM). Very small particles from the smoke can be inhaled into the human respiratory system and penetrate deep into the lungs. This can lead to a myriad of health concerns including eye and throat irritation, coughing and shortness of breath and asthma attacks. Longer-term exposure can lead to cardiovascular disease and even premature death. Children, the elderly, and those with pre-existing conditions like chronic obstructive pulmonary disease are especially vulnerable.

People are taking steps to remove the smoke. While some can afford commercially available air cleaners, many are using Do-It-Yourself (DIY) air cleaners built with a box fan and a common furnace filter. DIY air cleaners have been shown to filter out small particles from wood smoke when they are used appropriately. Some state agencies have begun recommending DIY air cleaners during smoke events as an affordable and accessible alternative to commercial air cleaners. However, concerns exist regarding their fire safety since consumers are retrofitting electric box fans not intended or evaluated for this purpose by the manufacturer.

Chemical Insights is conducting research to evaluate the potential fire risks of operating a DIY air cleaner. Further research will characterize the smoke aerosol and its toxicity and evaluate how filtration can reduce human health risks.