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Know the Risks - Health Effects

Besides the risk for serious burns, one of the greatest health risks from open burning is smoke inhalation. Smoke is largely made up of air pollutants known as particulate matter. These pollutants are small enough to invade our respiratory system as we breathe in polluted air. They can damage lung tissues when they reach the alveoli, which are the tiny air sacs where we take in oxygen and unload carbon dioxide (see image below). This reduces your lung capacity.

Particles 10 micrometers in diameter and smaller (also called PM10) pose the greatest problems, because they can get deep into the lungs, and some may even get into the bloodstream. Among these particles are "fine particles," which are 2.5 micrometers in diameter and smaller (also called PM2.5). These fine particles can affect both the lungs and the heart.

Children are at risk because their lungs are still developing and because they spend more time outdoors, and the elderly are also sensitive to the harmful effects of PM pollution. However, there is some risk for all of us.

Scientific studies have linked breathing PM to serious health problems, including:

  • Respiratory symptoms, such as irritation of the airways, coughing or difficulty breathing;
  • Decreased lung function;
  • Aggravated asthma;
  • Development of chronic bronchitis;
  • Irregular heartbeat;
  • Nonfatal heart attacks; and
  • Premature death in people with heart or lung disease.
Drawing of Lung and closeup of Alveoli

Both short and long term exposure to PM, primarily PM2.5, can lead to these health problems. Short term exposure is measured on a daily basis. Effects such as nonfatal heart attacks and premature death are the result of repeated short term exposures, rather than a single instance of exposure to high PM levels. Long term exposure is measured on an annual basis.

For more information on the health effects of wildfire smoke, see DHEC's wildfires webpage.

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