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Potentially harmful chemicals found in forest fire smoke
Date:4/30/2009

RICHLAND, Wash. -- Researchers have detected common plant toxins that affect human health and ecosystems in smoke from forest fires. The results from the new study also suggest that smoldering fires may produce more toxins than wildfires - a reason to keep human exposures to a minimum during controlled burns.

Finding these toxins -- known as alkaloids -- helps researchers understand how they cycle through earth and air. Smoke-related alkaloids in the environment can change aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems, as well as where and when clouds form. The study, which was of Ponderosa pines, by scientists at the Department of Energy's Pacific Northwest National Laboratory will appear June 1 in Environmental Science and Technology.

"Ponderosa pines are widespread in areas that are prone to forest fires," said PNNL physical chemist Julia Laskin, one of the coauthors. "This study shows us which molecules are in smoke so we can better understand smoke's environmental impact."

As trees and underbrush burn, billowing smoke made up of tiny particles drifts away. The tiny particles contain a variety of natural compounds released from the plant matter. Researchers have long suspected the presence of alkaloids in smoke or detected them in air during fire season, but no one had directly measured them coming off a fire. The PNNL researchers had recently developed the technology to pick out alkaloids from the background of similar molecules.

To investigate chemicals given off by fires, the team captured some smoke from test fires organized by Colorado State University researchers. These researchers were doing controlled burns of ponderosa pines, underbrush and other fuels at the Forest Service Fire Science Laboratory in Missoula, Mont.

The scientists collected smoke samples in a device that corrals small particles. Using high-resolution spectrometry instruments in EMSL, DOE's Environmental Molecular Sciences Laboratory on t
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Contact: Mary Beckman
mary.beckman@pnl.gov
509-375-3688
DOE/Pacific Northwest National Laboratory
Source:Eurekalert  

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