Wildfires in the Western United States: The smoke can be as dangerous as the flames, especially for firefighters.

The drought continues and wildfires are raging across the Western United States.  In Washington State alone, the wildfires have burned over 1400 square miles (that’s 3600 km2).  Brave men and women from across the United States are coming to the aid and trying to contain these historical fires.  Unfortunately lives of the firefighters are in danger from the moment they approach the scene.  While the fire itself poses a huge risk to the firefighters, neighboring communities, and wildlife, the even larger area of smoke coverage is another health concern.   Smoke contains many known hazards in the form of particulate matter and chemicals produced from the incomplete combustion of wood and other organic materials.  Carbon monoxide, aldehydes, benzenes, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) are just a few of the chemicals that are found in smoke that can cause health problems if inhaled.  Residents in the affected areas are cautioned to limit their exposure by staying indoors and keep windows and doors closed.

At the 4th Multidimensional Workshop in 2013, the late Brian McCarry presented on the Identification of new Markers of Wood Smoke Exposures in Firefighters using GCxGC-TOFMS.  He used a 60 m x 0.25 mm x 0.25 µm Rxi-5Sil MS in the first dimension and a 1 m x 0.1 mm x 0.1 µm Rxi-17Sil MS in the second dimension on the LECO Pegasus 4D instrument.  He analyzed firefighter’s urine pre and post-smoke exposure.  After he evaluated chemicals found in wood smoke and compared that to the compounds detected in post-smoke urine samples, he found several potential marker compounds for wood smoke exposure.  Some of the marker compounds identified were methoxyphenols (guaiacols and syringols), resin acids and PAHs. A quantitative method was then developed using GC-MS/MS for wood smoke markers in air, on skin and in urine.  By monitoring these markers, the true exposure to firefighters can be better understood and therefore, better health risk assessments can be made to hopefully limit their exposure.

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