Smoke from moorland wildfires may hold toxic blast from the past | Innovation Tech

Men trying to put out fire

Danny Lawson/PA Wire/PA Images

THE UK’s largest wildfire for decades is almost under control after blazing for a week during the country’s longest heat wave since 1976. But with no rain forecast for at least a week, peat burning underground at Saddleworth Moor near Manchester could continue to smoulder, generating hazardous smoke. The same could happen on moorland at Winter Hill (pictured), 50 kilometres away, which burned for five days before being put out.

Fire chiefs tackling the Saddleworth blaze say it has consumed up to 20 square kilometres of moor and scrubland. Although surface fires are all but out, peat below ground continues to smoulder and can only be completely extinguished with a two or three-day downpour. “Without rain, it’s very difficult to put out,” says Hugh Coe, a professor of atmospheric composition at the University of Manchester.

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As it continues to smoulder and burn, the peat reignites sporadic surface fires, and spews potentially hazardous smoke. “The worst hazard is the small-particulate matter, which exacerbates lung problems, asthma, allergy and chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder,” says Coe. Burning peat debris also gets coated with cancer-causing chemicals called polyaromatic hydrocarbons.

But because of extensive toxic fallout from factories a century ago, there could be other hazards. “There’s 100 years’ of pollution buried along with the peat as it formed,” says Coe. This could mean that toxic heavy metals such as lead and cadmium are taking to the air in fly ash.

This article appeared in print under the headline “Wildfire smoke hazard”

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