How Forest Fires Impact Air Quality and Human Health

Forest fires are burning somewhere around the world every day. They can occur naturally when the conditions are right, or they caused by man, on purpose or by accident. Natural fires are necessary as they remove dead organic matter and weak/ill trees, and replenish the land through the release of seeds and breaking down nutrients for the soil that will be consumed by new plant life. This strengthens the local ecosystem and improves the wildlife habitat. However, with the good they provide comes the bad, and the most obvious consequence of forest fires is air pollution. 

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Forest fires visibly release various emissions into the atmosphere. They range from your typical culprits, namely carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide, to ozone-forming chemicals, nitric oxide, particulate matter, atmospheric mercury, volatile organic compounds, and various other carbon elements released from burning organic material.

Most of the above-mentioned emissions are well-known for their contribution to global warming. Additionally, it is important to monitor the atmospheric conditions during a fire due to the negative health effects on local communities. Forest fire pollutants contribute to respiratory problems that worsen with prolonged exposure to smoke, potentially leading to infections. Smoke also worsens cardiovascular health, and those with pre-existing conditions are more at risk of death. There are still many challenges for researchers studying the health effects of forest fires, and that is largely due to the lack of atmospheric data available

Furthermore, forest fires not only have an impact on local environments, the magnitude of the fire directly correlates with the scale of its global effect. During the 2004 Alaskan wildfire season, the International Consortium for Atmospheric Research on Transport and Transformation study reported an increase in air pollutants not only across North America, but in Europe as well.

The importance of monitoring atmospheric conditions during forest fires cannot be understated as it reveals the scope of the diverse effects they can have. Proper response measures are crucial to mitigate the consequences of forest fires, and they can be further developed when given accurate data on the air quality changes detected by monitoring systems.

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