Researchers find that wildfire smoke poses neurological hazards

Inhaled microscopic particles from wood smoke can work their way into the bloodstream and reach the brain, putting people at risk for premature aging and various forms of dementia, depression, and even psychosis

Satellite photo, smoke from California fires
Satellite photo, smoke from California fires at 7:01 p.m. PDT Aug 4, 2021.

The research outlined below by the University of New Mexico Health Sciences Center is further evidence of the importance of smoke management. Land managers, agency administrators, and incident management teams need to constantly consider methods of reducing smoke exposure to firefighters and the downwind population when planning, conducting, or suppressing wildfires and prescribed burns.

Woodsmoke from massive wildfires burning in California shrouded much of the West last summer, making it harder for people suffering from respiratory illnesses to breathe.

Those respiratory consequences can be dangerous — even life-threatening — but Matthew Campen, PhD, a professor in The University of New Mexico College of Pharmacy, sees another hazard hidden in the smoke.

In research published online this week in the journal Toxicological Sciences, Campen and his colleagues report that inhaled microscopic particles from woodsmoke work their way into the bloodstream and reach the brain, and may put people at risk for neurological problems ranging from premature aging and various forms of dementia to depression and even psychosis.

“These are fires that are coming through small towns and they’re burning up cars and houses,” Campen says. Microplastics and metallic particles of iron, aluminum and magnesium are lofted into the sky, sometimes traveling thousands of miles.

In the research study conducted last year at Laguna Pueblo, 41 miles west of Albuquerque and roughly 600 miles from the source of wildland fires, Campen and his team found that mice exposed to smoke-laden air for nearly three weeks under closely monitored conditions showed age-related changes in their brain tissue.

The findings highlight the hidden dangers of woodsmoke that might not be dense enough to trigger respiratory symptoms, Campen says.

As smoke rises higher in the atmosphere heavier particles fall out, he says. “It’s only these really small ultra-fine particles that travel a thousand miles to where we are. They’re more dangerous because the small particles get deeper into your lung and your lung has a harder time removing them as a result.”

When the particles burrow into lung tissue, it triggers the release of inflammatory immune molecules into the bloodstream, which carries them into the brain, where they start to degrade the blood-brain barrier, Campen says. That causes the brain’s own immune protection to kick in.

“It looks like there’s a breakdown of the blood-brain barrier that’s mild, but it still triggers a response from the protective cells in the brain — astrocytes and microglia — to sheathe it off and protect the rest of the brain from the factors in the blood,” he says.

“Normally the microglia are supposed to be doing other things, like helping with learning and memory,” Campen adds. The researchers found neurons showed metabolic changes suggesting that wildfire smoke exposure may add to the burden of aging-related impairments.

The research team included colleagues from the College of Pharmacy and the UNM Departments of Neurosciences, Geography & Environmental Studies, and Earth and Planetary Sciences, as well as researchers at Arizona State University, Michigan State University and Virginia Commonwealth University.

Story provided by University of New Mexico Health Sciences Center. Original written by Michael Haederle.

Journal Reference:

David Scieszka, Russell Hunter, Jessica Begay, Marsha Bitsui, Yan Lin, Joseph Galewsky, Masako Morishita, Zachary Klaver, James Wagner, Jack R Harkema, Guy Herbert, Selita Lucas, Charlotte McVeigh, Alicia Bolt, Barry Bleske, Christopher G Canal, Ekaterina Mostovenko, Andrew K Ottens, Haiwei Gu, Matthew J Campen, Shahani Noor. Neuroinflammatory and neurometabolomic consequences from inhaled wildfire smoke-derived particulate matter in the Western United States. Toxicological Sciences, 2021; DOI: 10.1093/toxsci/kfab147

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Gerald.

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Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, he continues to learn, and strives to be a Student of Fire.

7 thoughts on “Researchers find that wildfire smoke poses neurological hazards”

  1. One more thread of proof that this job is not supposed to be anything but temporary but folks are still pushing for fulltime year round with bennies!? Aside from it not being a full time sustainable job, has anyone bothered to figure out how those jobs will be filled when the new full timers start needing extended time off for mental health, physical health issues, vacation, ptsd etc….? For arguements sake if its claimed we currently need 40,000 firefighters in reality we should be looking for closer to 80,000. And once again where is the sustainability in that from both a firefighter and a taxpayer standpoints? Ill tell you….. NONE OF THIS IS SUSTAINABLE

  2. So I just want to understand.With all the health risk that Wildland Firefighters are exposed to and the proven outcome.Why just tell me why are we still fighting the fires and not letting nature put them out ? A million Trees or Houses are not worth the deaths every year.

    1. With that logic why fight structural fires either as its also not worth the risk to city firefighters? There’s a reason we call them “values” .

      1. Please explain to me the value of a patch of trees surrounded by burn scars. Let’s not be naive. There are some idiotic assignments given to us purely based on some old timers obsessions with bias for action. I’m kind of sick of eating ash and smoke because “it’s part of the job”. How about let’s do things that will kill us when we are actually accomplishing a task? What a concept.

  3. Ahhhhh….30 yrs later after BLM engine crews had safety briefs sent out to fire stations about the dangers of exploding air bags and the hazardous particles and whatnot…this study shouldn’t be surprising…At All…


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