Australia has faced a devastating bushfire season, with nearly 60 grass and bushfires still burning across the New South Wales state. Hot, dry, and windy conditions over the next several days are expected to increase the fire danger. These fires pose different threats to the firefighters battling them. Jessica Oakes and Chiara Bellini, two assistant Bioengineering professors at Northeastern University are studying the health consequences of smoke inhalation on woodland firefighters. According to them, the long-term effects of these threats are still largely unknown because the safety equipment used by woodland firefighters is far less regulated than that of their counterparts who fight fires in buildings and other structures.
The emergency personnel work 12-hour shifts and are exposed to dangerous smoke conditions for a much longer period than firefighters who battle structural fires. Much of their job is also cleaning up wild land that may not be actively burning but is still smoldering. The researchers say that the smoke is filled with chemicals and particulate matter that make it dangerous to breathe, both for firefighters and civilians. The fine particles in the smoke can linger in the air for a long time after the fire begins and can travel quite far. Recently, NASA announced that smoke from the wildfires in Australia has circled the globe. Canberra is still miles from the bushfires, but air quality in the Australian capital this month is among the worst of any major city in the world. The density of particulate matter in the air in Canberra is close to 10 times higher than the acceptable standards set by the Environmental Protection Agency in the United States. Breathing in bad air for too long can also lead to more serious ailments, including heart attacks, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, asthma, and strokes.
Oakes and Bellini hope that their research will help to protect the firefighters battling these dangerous, sustained fires.
Shahjadi Jemim Rahman