Smoke, soot and your health
How does smoke affect my health?
If you have inhaled smoke, you may suffer from stinging eyes, nose and airways. Your eyes may water and you may start to cough. If you have sensitive airways due to asthma, for instance, you may feel breathless or start to wheeze.
If a large amount of smoke is inhaled, smoke poisoning by carbon monoxide, for example, may occur.
Whether smoke is harmful to your health mainly depends on the amount of smoke you inhale. The closer you are to the fire, the more smoke you will breathe in. And the longer you are in a smoky environment, the more smoke you will inhale. The more smoke you breathe in, the faster your body will react and the longer the symptoms may continue.
There is only a very small chance that breathing in smoke will lead to permanent damage to your health. Research has shown that exposure to smoke can sometimes lead to over-sensitive airways. This is also known as Reactive Airways Dysfunction Syndrome (RADS). RADS is a non-allergic form of asthma where:
- you have had no previous airway symptoms or lung problems
- you started to suffer from coughing, wheezing and/or breathlessness immediately after inhaling the smoke
- the symptoms last for a number of months or recur when you inhale irritants such as deodorants, or in specific weather conditions such as when it is cold or foggy.
How does soot affect my health?
In the event of a fire, some of the smoke remains behind in the form of soot and other particles. These can be harmful if swallowed or if they enter the food chain.
Many different chemicals can be present in soot. Swallowing large amounts of soot can be harmful in the longer term. Some substances found in soot, such as benzo[a]pyrene and dioxins, are carcinogenic (they cause cancer).
We ingest soot deposits mainly from dirty hands, from eating vegetables with soot on them, from playground equipment or after soot has entered our homes on dirty shoes.
Sometimes substances contained in soot can enter the food chain after a fire. If, for example, dioxins land on grass eaten by cows, their milk will contain dioxins. If grass or hay contains too many dioxins after a fire, these crops are sometimes destroyed to prevent the milk from being contaminated. If a large fire occurs, cattle sometime have to be kept indoors to prevent the animals from eating contaminated grass. Eating crops from allotments, for example, may also involve health risks. In that case, wait for advice on whether it is safe to consume crops that have been enveloped in smoke.