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Wood fires as bad for the lungs as smoking

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People breathing in smoke from bushfires may suffer similar damage to those with smoking-related emphysema, according to alarming findings from the Woolcock Institute of Medical Research.

For the first time, laboratory tests conducted on human lung cells have shown that smoke from burning wood can scar and inflame the lungs. The Sydney-based scientists conducting the study said those exposed to smoke from burning wood were at risk of developing chronic, degenerative lung disease.

The discovery raises concerns about the long-term effects of exposure to biomass fuel used for cooking and heating in many developing countries.

Woolcock cell biologist and lead author Dr Brian Oliver said the discovery also sent a timely warning about the dangers of exposure to wood smoke from bushfires and hazard reduction burns.

 “There is a message here that the smoke we inhale from burning biomass fuels can do long-term lasting damage to our lungs.” Dr Brian Oliver said.

The team tested the effects of wood smoke on human lung cells and found it triggered the release of extracellular matrix proteins which are important in the formation of scar tissue and the production of key inflammatory mediators.

They focused on smoke from biological materials and its potential role in triggering chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), a debilitating condition that attacks and destroys lungs over time and affects one in 13 Australians aged 40 years and older, with smoking being the primary cause.

In a disturbing finding, Dr Brian Oliver said wood smoke had a similar effect to cigarette smoke in activating human lung cells.

“We take cigarette smoke exposure very seriously.” Dr Brian Oliver said.

“Our evidence suggests it might be time to do the same with wood smoke, and try to minimise exposure.”

Sanja Novakovic