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Particulate matter: What health hazards are slumbering in the air from forest fires

Health particulate matter

What health hazards are slumbering in the air from forest fires

Charred trees are seen during a fire.  Fires broke out on Monday at two former military training areas in south-western Mecklenburg.  +++ dpa picture radio +++ Charred trees are seen during a fire.  Fires broke out on Monday at two former military training areas in south-western Mecklenburg.  +++ dpa picture radio +++

Forest fires like this one on a former military training area in Mecklenburg also release a lot of fine dust

Source: picture alliance/dpa

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Whether in Brandenburg and Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania or far away in Canada: Forest fires are again causing a stir in many places. Even in remote locations, smoke poses health risks.

DAccording to the Federal Environment Agency (Uba), the main health risk from forest fire smoke is caused by exposure to fine dust. The Federal Environment Agency (Uba) announced that very small particles (PM 2.5) in particular are of great importance to health because they penetrate very deeply into the lungs and can cause damage there. “These primarily affect the lungs, but also the cardiovascular system.” Very fine particles could also pass into the blood and thus in principle reach all organs.

Overall, fine dust leads to increased mortality, explained Germany’s central environmental authority. The particles triggered inflammation and stress in the cells of the human body. “If this persists for a longer period of time, it can lead to illnesses.” Short-term, i.e. hours or days of high stress leads, among other things, to high blood pressure and hospital and emergency admissions, mostly due to cardiovascular diseases.

Depending on the type of fire, many other pollutants such as methane and nitrogen dioxide can be produced and spread during forest fires, according to Uba. The load depends, for example, on whether the environment is polluted or not and whether houses, warehouses, machines, cars or ammunition are also burning in addition to the forest. Dioxins and heavy metals such as mercury and lead, attached to fine dust particles, could also be contained in the smoke. According to Uba, high levels of air pollution from forest fires can sometimes also be measured at greater distances from the source of the fire – this recently became clear with the apocalyptic images in New York.

“Various studies point to connections between irritation of the respiratory tract, reduced lung function, deterioration of pre-existing diseases such as asthma or chronic obstructive bronchitis (COPD) or increased heart attacks in forest fire areas,” continues the Uba. In addition, there are indications that forest fires that fall in the later months of pregnancy could lead to a lower birth weight and premature birth in newborns.

According to Uba, acute health effects depend on how long the exposure lasts and how severe it is. Acute smoke poisoning is rather rare because particles and gases in such fires are distributed rather quickly in the atmosphere. Breathing in hot air can cause burns, especially in the upper respiratory tract. Various inhaled pollutants could lead to local inflammatory reactions with tissue swelling, so that breathing and lung function could be significantly impaired. A common cause of death is the inhalation of toxic gases such as carbon monoxide. The further away you are from the burning area, the less likely acute health effects are.

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