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Study: Wildfire smoke leaves behind toxic chemicals in your home, but simple steps can help

Smoke from a wildfire
Colby K. Neal
/
Bureau of Land Management
New research shows that smoke from wildfires can leave behind toxic chemicals on common household materials. Researchers at Portland State University found that the chemicals can accumulate in common household materials like cotton and glass after wildfire smoke exposure, and remain for weeks.

New research shows that smoke from wildfires can leave behind toxic chemicals on common household materials. But there are things you can do to protect your family.

Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) are a mouthful to say. But they’re also carcinogens and associated with other serious health issues. Researchers at Portland State University found that the chemicals can accumulate in common household materials like cotton and glass after wildfire smoke exposure, and remain for weeks.

“We're at levels of exposure that I think people should be paying attention to,” said Elliott Gall, an associate professor in Portland State’s Mechanical and Materials Engineering department.

He and his co-author also found that simple cleaning practices can substantially reduce risk after smoke exposures. Ethanol and a commercial cleaner removed around two-thirds of PAHs on glass surfaces. Nearly half were removed from smoke-exposed cotton by laundering and heated drying.

“Clean materials that you come in contact with regularly,” Gall suggested. “So I would recommend laundering sheets, laundering clothing that you wear frequently.”

“I would look for things that are coming in contact with the oral route of exposure,” he added, things like “dishware, flatware, cups, glasses.”

Gall also recommended taking measures to prevent as much smoke from getting into your home as possible, like closing windows and exhaust vents.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, KUNC in Colorado and KANW in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

As Boise State Public Radio's Mountain West News Bureau reporter, I try to leverage my past experience as a wildland firefighter to provide listeners with informed coverage of a number of key issues in wildland fire. I’m especially interested in efforts to improve the famously challenging and dangerous working conditions on the fireline.
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