October 28, 2022

A panel of experts commissioned by the National Academies has issued a new report highlighting the need for critical research into the chemistry of wildfires that encroach into developed communities and can cause long-term health harm to people in urban areas.

These fires often occur along the wildland-urban interface (WUI) – places where communities of people meet or intermingle with wildland areas where forest debris can fuel wildfires. Unlike conventional wildfires, WUI fires burn homes, cars and other human-made structures, as well as vegetation. The chemical interactions in these fires can lead to acute, chronic or delayed health effects through inhalation, ingestion and skin contact.

Climate change, community expansion and historical land management practices are contributing to an increase in WUI fires, especially in western parts of the United States.  Although western WUI fires receive the most attention because of their size, the WUI and population in the eastern U.S. are large, and, thus, WUI fires pose a risk in the eastern U.S. as well.

Dr. Barbara Turpin

Dr. Barbara Turpin

The panel of 12 experts, which includes Barbara Turpin, PhD, professor and chair of the Department of Environmental Sciences and Engineering at the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health, has compiled knowledge about materials, combustion conditions, local and regional smoke exposures, exposures to soil and water contamination, and health effects with vulnerable populations, emergency responders and the public in mind. They identify opportunities for chemistry research that can fill critical gaps in knowledge and inform decision-makers on how best to mitigate the harmful impacts of WUI fires on public health.

“I jumped at the opportunity to serve on this panel, having grown up in a place increasingly impacted by wildfire smoke,” Turpin said. “Air pollution is the number two risk factor in the global burden of disease, and contributes to an estimated seven million premature deaths globally (World Health Organization). Wildfire smoke concentrations can rival those in the most polluted cities in the world, increasing human exposures over hundreds or thousands of kilometers.”

When a wildfire burns through an urban area, it encounters large quantities of manufactured materials, including plastics and metals that can form compounds with toxic potential. These materials alter combustion products, smoke composition and exposures locally. Turpin said it is also possible that these materials could alter the atmospheric chemistry as the smoke is transported through downwind communities. WUI contaminants affect water and soil quality as well.

The overall impacts of urban materials on WUI fire health impacts are poorly understood, according to Turpin. A variety of factors make some people more vulnerable than others, including their job responsibilities and immigration status, ability to relocate, underlying health, access to information, and ability to implement indoor air interventions.

“There is a lot we already know about WUI fires but also critical knowledge that we lack,” she said. “The panel drew from a wide variety of literature and expertise to compile current knowledge about the chemistry of WUI fires, exposures and health risk mitigation. We also highlighted critical research gaps. Coordinated research will help fill these gaps and better manage this increasing risk.”

The report recommends a research agenda to inform the response to and prevention of WUI fires, outlining needs in characterizing fuels and predicting emissions and toxicants.

“Gillings is well positioned to contribute to this research, given our experience conducting smog chamber studies of wildfire smoke and atmospheric chemistry with North Carolina A&T University, real-time field measurements, regional and global smoke modeling with U.S Environmental Protection Agency, and computational toxicology of indoor products and wildfire mixtures,” Turpin added.

Read the full report online.

Read the article from Environmental Science & Technology.

Contact the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health communications team at sphcomm@unc.edu.

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