It comes as no surprise that wildfire smoke contains compounds that are unhealthy to breathe, but in a new report published by Boulder’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, wildfire smoke also contains the same acid found in cigarette smoke -- isocyanic acid.
With summer rapidly approaching and predictions that the wildfire season will certainly be as severe, if not more severe, than the last several summers, this discovery shines a new light on the long term effects of global warming and effects caused by wildfires long after they are extinguished.
This harmful acid linked with human diseases from cataracts to cardiovascular disease to rheumatoid arthritis was discovered and analyzed by NOAA in several environments.
We found isocyanic acid in a number of places, from air in downtown Los Angeles and air downwind of a Colorado wildfire, to cigarette smoke. We also demonstrated that it dissolves readily in water, which means that humans can be exposed directly if it gets into eyes or lungs.
Further in the report NOAA discusses that climate change is expected to bring hotter temperatures and drier conditions to some regions of the world, with accompanying increases in wildfires. Roberts goes on to say in the NOAA report:
We may be facing a future of higher amounts of [isocyanic acid, described in the report by the chemical formula HNCO], in the atmosphere. It is fortunate that now we can measure it.
During the testing, levels of HNCO approached 600 parts per pillion volume (ppbv) which was a few thousand times less concentrated in the air in Boulder during the Fourmile Canyon fire. But, the team of scientists discovered that even if only around 1 ppbv of HNCO was dissolved into human lungs and eyes, those tissues could become vulnerable to the diseases brought on by isocyanic acid exposure.
And as with everything in the environment, negative effects of pollution are compounded by multiple points of exposure. NOAA found the people would likely experience higher exposure to HNCO if living near wildfires and Colorado has a large mountain and grassland population where many of these wildfires break out. But, the negative health effects are believed to be compounded by indoor environments where coal, wood or other biomass is burned for heating or cooking. However, NOAA states in their report that the chronic exposure to lower-level amounts of isocynanic acid are still not known.
Joost de Gouw, co-author of the report, spoke at the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on Monday night, as The Denver Post reports:
More research into health effects is needed. We know smoke is bad for you. What this study showed is a new mechanism by which it is harmful to you.
To learn more about the issue go to NOAA’s website, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America website or view an abstract of the NOAA research paper, “Isocyanic acid in the atmosphere and its possible link to smoke-related health effects.”
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