If you think you’ve smelt burnt plastic coming from lingering wildfire smoke, you may not be alone. There actually is a scientific reason for such a smell.
According to Dr. Michael Fitzpatrick, a professor of medicine at Queen’s University specializing in respirology, smoke exposed to sunlight and its UV rays can create a chemical reaction that results in the creation of benzene and formaldehyde, which smell like burning plastic.
The reaction with UV rays can happen quickly, Fitzpatrick said, but for the smell to be a result depends on the concentration of “volatile organic compounds” that are released by the fire.
Residents of major cities in Canada and the U.S. are once again experiencing smog and hazy conditions due to wildfires burning in Ontario and Quebec.
Toronto had one of the worst air qualities of major cities in the world on Wednesday, according to Global News meteorologist Anthony Farnell. Some events, such as parts of the Jazz Festival in Toronto, were cancelled due to the smog.
Fitzpatrick said that if you smell burning plastic, it could be a sign that the air has become more toxic. The smoke so far has typically had a wood-fire-type smell.
The presence of formaldehyde in the air can cause irritation of the eyes and throat, according to Fitzpatrick, while benzene can cause drowsiness, headaches and a rapid heart rate.
He also noted that benzene can be carcinogenic, although he said that most people won’t be exposed to a large enough quantity for that to be a concern or for it to cause an impaired state of consciousness.
Fitzpatrick recommends not going out if you can avoid it during smokey periods, or wear a mask if you do, and keep your windows and doors closed when inside.
Different smells can also be caused by what is being burned at the source, he noted. Given the size of the fires, that could include some homes.
“The ordinary person who smells plastic in the smoke from a forest fire may experience some irritation of the eyes and throat, but that would be the height of it,” Fitzpatrick said.
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