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Fire, Smoke and Effect on Air Quality

► Also see the NYC Community Air Survey

► The NYC Environmental Public Health Tracking Portal
will help you assess local drinking water

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Fire, Smoke and Air Quality
Unfortunately, fires occur routinely in the city. Most fires in the city occur in buildings and homes but fires can start from many other sources such as rubbish, automobiles, and brush. The smoke that is created is an air pollutant and can lower the quality of the air we breathe. This fact sheet provides information on potential health effects and ways to limit exposure to smoke.

What is in smoke?
Smoke is a complex mixture of different gases and particles. Burning wood, fuel, plastics, and other synthetic materials produce smoke with a variety of chemicals. Regardless of what specific chemicals make up the smoke, it can cause health effects.

What health effects can occur from breathing smoke?
Exposure to smoke typically causes eye, nose and throat irritation. In healthy individuals, these symptoms are usually short-term and are unlikely to lead to ongoing health problems. Fires can also contribute to odors, which may linger and enter nearby buildings. These odors are typically a nuisance only.

Should I see my doctor if I experience health effects?
Common health effects, such as minor irritation, do not usually require a visit to your doctor. You should seek medical attention immediately, however, if you experience more serious symptoms, such as: shortness of breath or chest pains. Also see your doctor if you have asthma, heart disease or another medical condition that you feel is worsening.

How can I protect myself from smoke?
You can reduce your exposure by staying indoors, and, if possible, keeping windows closed. The fresh-air intake on air conditioners should be closed to prevent outdoor air from entering your home. Reducing your exposure to smoke in the air will help prevent health effects. People with cardiovascular or respiratory conditions (like asthma) may be more vulnerable to smoke exposure. These individuals should avoid or limit their exposure to smoke.

Can air purifiers help protect me from smoke?
Air purifiers vary widely in their ability to remove air pollutants, though some may improve indoor air quality. Always follow manufacturers’ recommendations for using air purifiers. All air purifiers have some limitations so keep in mind:

  • No air purifier can remove all pollutants from the air.
  • The most common air purifiers are designed to remove only particles. These purifiers will not affect odors caused by the gases in smoke.
  • The use of ultraviolet (UV) light in air purifiers does not effectively help to remove smoke from the air.
  • Some air purifiers release ozone gas, a known lung irritant and asthma trigger. These should not be used under any conditions.

Should I have the air in my home tested for smoke if there is a fire nearby?
In general, the public health risk for people in communities near a structural fire is low. Sampling the air in your home is unnecessary because the contaminants in the air are expected to be present at very low levels and to be short-term in nature.

Things made of porous materials (like fabric-covered furniture) may hold smoke odors and may need to be cleaned to remove odors.

Where can I get more information?
Listen to radio and TV for any health alerts. For more information on air purifiers see the EPA report "Residential Air Cleaning Devices: A Summary of Available Information" at www.epa.gov/iaq/pubs/residair.html. For more information on air quality and health concerns associated with a fire in your neighborhood, call 311.

Last Updated: July 2, 2012