It’s easy to see the immediate health hazards of wildfire smoke, as people struggle to breathe through a sooty haze.
But a new study finds that harmful chemicals found in wildfire smoke can linger in a person’s home for weeks after the immediate threat has passed, posing a continuing health threat.
The chemicals — compounds called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) — are highly toxic and can be found in household air filters, glass surfaces and cotton cloth more than a month later, researchers report.
“They are associated with a wide variety of long-term adverse health consequences like cancer, potential complications in pregnancy and lung disease,” said researcher Elliott Gall, an associate professor of mechanical and materials engineering at Portland State University in Oregon.
“If these compounds are depositing or sticking onto surfaces, there are different routes of exposure people should be aware of,” Gall added in a university news release.
There’s lots of good advice out there on what to do during a wildfire, researchers noted — close windows and doors, run an air purifier, wear a mask.
But there’s not much to guide people on how to best clean up afterward, researchers said.
For this study, Gall and his team looked at how PAHs stuck to glass, cotton and air filters during a four-month span.
They found it took 37 days for PAHs to decrease by 74% for air filters, 81% for cotton and 88% for glass — potentially harming the health of a home’s inhabitants by prolonging their exposure to the chemicals.
However, targeted cleaning proved effective in quickly ridding a home of PAHs that linger long after a wildfire has passed, the researchers said.
Laundering cotton materials just once after smoke exposure lowered PAHs by 80%, and using commercial glass cleaners on windows or cups reduced PAH levels between 60% and 70%.
Air filters should simply be replaced, since they can’t be cleaned, Gall added.
Future studies will focus on other materials and surfaces common in homes, as well as specific cleaning techniques and household cleaning solutions available to average folks, researchers said.
The findings were published recently in the journal ACS ES&T Engineering.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has more about polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons.
SOURCE: Portland State University, news release, Jan. 2, 2024
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