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Pollution Caused by Summer Wildfires Significantly Higher Than Previously Thought

Jun 15, 2017 02:22 PM EDT
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Wildfires released pollutants at a rate three times as high as levels the EPA recorded.
(Photo : David McNew/Getty Images)

A new study revealed that the amount of pollutants released into the air during wildfires were significantly higher than what were noted in the emissions inventories of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

The study, published in the Journal of Geophysical Research-Atmospheres, showed that the natural forest fires release so-called fine particles into the air at a rate three times as high as levels the EPA recorded.

 "You can see the smoke, and it's dark for a reason," said researcher Greg Huey from the Georgia Institute of Technology, in a press release. "When you go measuring wildfires, you get everything there is to measure. You start to wonder sometimes what all is in there."

For the study, the researchers collaborated with NASA's Studies of Emissions and Atmospheric Composition, Clouds and Climate Coupling by Regional Surveys (SEAC4R) and US Department of Energy's Burning Biomass Observation Project (BBOP). A group of about 20 scientists from more than a dozen universities and organizations installed different measuring and recording instruments in the aircraft of NASA and USDE. These instruments were used to measure chemicals and particles in real time and cull masses of data.

The researchers found that naturally burning timber and brush sends out fine particles in the air at a rate three times as high as levels noted in emissions inventories at the EPA. Aside from fine particles, the researchers also detected methanol, benzene, ozone precursors and even certain nitrates in the plumes from wildfires.

Fine particles are considered to be dangerous to human health, particularly to heart and lungs. Particulate matters in the wildfire plumes could easily be carried by the wind to populated areas. These hazardous molecules may contain antioxidants that can cause genetic damage.

Before this study, EPA can only obtain data from plume samples taken in controlled burns ignited by forestry professionals. These controlled burns, or most commonly known as prescribed burnings, are conducted to prevent or reduced the damage caused by wildfires. With these new data sets, experts could now have better overall estimates of wildlife emissions.

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