Colorado Wildfires: Dangers of Smoke Inhalation for Residents and Firefighters

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Firefighters are the first on scene to provide medical care to people injured by a fire. Photo by: Pere Quintana Seguí

Firefighters are the first on scene to provide medical care to people injured by a fire. Photo by: Pere Quintana Seguí

Wildfire Smoke Inhalation: Toxic Gases

You don’t have to be around fires for long until health effects begin. Smoke is irritating to the eyes, nose, and throat. The odor can also be nauseating for some people. According to the New York Department of Health, those who are exposed to heavy amounts of smoke can have changes to lung function and find it harder to breathe.

Small particles, vapors, and carbon monoxide are major components of smoke that cause health injuries.

Particles in the smoke can be unburned or partially-burned pieces – sometimes so small that they can penetrate the respiratory system and gets lodged in the lungs.

Vapors are also part of the smoke, and you can absorb this ‘liquid poison’ as the National Fire Protection Agency describes it, through the skin or by inhaling it.

When a fire burns things, they release toxic gases like carbon monoxide, hydrogen cyanide, and phosgene – these gases can be deadly.

  • Carbon monoxide can be deadly, even in small amounts, because it replaces the oxygen in the bloodstream. In lower levels, carbon monoxide can cause heart problems and headaches, and can reduce alertness.
  • Hydrogen cyanide results from burning plastic items, such as PVC pipe in a house – exposure inhibits cellular respiration.
  • Phosgene results from the burning of household items such as vinyl. Low levels of phosgene poisoning can cause itchy eyes and a sore throat and at higher levels it can cause pulmonary edema (fluid buildup around the lungs) and death.

Colorado Wildfires: Health Risks

If you have cardiovascular problems, asthma, or young children, or if you’re pregnant or elderly, you are at the most at risk for dangers associated with smoke inhalation. If you’re in an evacuation area, don’t hesitate – evacuate. If you’re in a smoky area, consider taking a vacation, but if you have to stay at home, run air purifiers – but don’t depend on dust-masks if you smell smoke, according to the CDC, they’re ineffective. To date, no one has been injured in the Colorado wildfires – but residents within range of the smoke, and firefighters who are exposed to many chemicals while they are working, may be at risk for long-term health effects.

Resources:

Fox News. Black Forest Fire in Colorado most destructive in state’s history, report says. (2013). Accessed June 14, 2013.

National Fire Protection Agency. The consequences of fire. Accessed June 14, 2013.

New York State Department of Health. Exposure to smoke from fires. Accessed June 14, 2013.

Rehberg, S., Maybauer, M., Enkhbaatar, P., et al. Pathophysiology, management and treatment of smoke inhalation. (2009). Expert Reviews of Respiratory Medicine. Accessed June 14, 2013.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Wildfires. (2013). Accessed June, 14, 2013.

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