Rutgers scientists have examined the physical and chemical attributes as well as the possible toxicological health effects of the Canadian wildfires that sharply impacted air quality in New Jersey and the New York metropolitan area.

Using state-of-the-art instrumentation, the Nanoscience and Advanced Materials Center (NAMC) at the Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences Institute (EOHSI) and the Rutgers School of Public Health completed a measurement campaign to characterize the physicochemical and toxicological properties of wildfire air pollution.

Scientists found that the air being breathed in New Jersey and New York could be compared to the second-hand smoke in bars before smoking was banned.

“Unfortunately, environmental issues have no boundaries, and we expect to see an increase in the frequency and intensity of wildfires in the northeast,” said Philip Demokritou, who is the Henry Rutgers Chair and Professor in Nanoscience and Environmental Engineering at the Rutgers School of Public Health and director of the NAMC and the Division of Environment and Population Health Biosciences at EOHSI.

Demokritou added: “Assessing the impact of such climate-driven events on health is of great importance and will help our society to prepare and adapt. I am impressed with the enthusiasm of our faculty, post-docs and students, and the transdisciplinary research projects across the exposure-disease continuum initiated in Rutgers and in collaboration with other academic Institutions such as Harvard Medical School and the University of South Carolina.”

Along with Demokritou, the faculty team includes Georgios Kelesidis, assistant professor at the Rutgers School of Public Health and NAMC Deputy Director, and Memo Cedeño Laurent, assistant professor at the Rutgers School of Public Health and director of the Rutgers Climate Adaptive and Restorative Environments (CARE) Lab. The team collected size-fractionated particulate matter samples throughout the wildfire event for physicochemical and morphological characterization. Simultaneously, real-time measurements were taken to monitor the fluctuating levels of air pollutants, providing a comprehensive picture of the wildfire's impact on air quality.

"The wildfires in Canada gave us a sobering demonstration of the climate change impacts on air quality,” said Cedeño Laurent.

During the peak of the incident on June 7, the average concentration of fine particulate matter (PM2.5) from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. was 330 micrograms per cubic meter (mg/m3), akin to the secondhand smoke in bars before smoking bans and way above the 35 mg/m3 24-hour limit of National Ambient Air Quality Standards. Cedeño Laurent said these results underscore the potential health risks associated with wildfire incidents, particularly for vulnerable populations such as the elderly and those with pre-existing respiratory conditions.

The samples collected during this campaign are under analysis to better understand their physical and chemical composition. Researchers said they will prove instrumental in the realization of toxicological studies that contribute to the broader scientific understanding of the impacts of wildfires on human health. A number of projects on assessing the toxicological properties of the particulate matter collected during the incident have been initiated and data from those projects will shed light on potential risks on disease development.

In addition to the health effects, wildfire smoke can exacerbate climate change.

Kelesidis is studying how particulate matter from wildfires increase the light absorption and scattering in the atmosphere, leading to further temperature variations. The effect of particulate matter from such incidents is compared to other greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide and methane.

The wildfire plume that reached our campus on June 7 at about 3 p.m. to 4 p.m. “absorbed 75 times more light than that absorbed by clean ambient air affecting the local climate," said Kelesidis.

Data collection efforts were conducted by Rutgers School of Public Health post-doctoral fellows Hooman Parhizkar, Denisa Lisonova and Constantinos Moularas, as well as doctoral candidate Leonardo Calderon.

The team plans to publish its full findings in several peer-reviewed scientific papers in the coming months.