Why does our wildfire smoke smell weird?

The Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE) put out its own warning about poor air quality.
Published: Jun. 27, 2023 at 8:45 PM EDT
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SAGINAW, Mich. (WNEM) - Wildfire smoke has been a huge topic around not only mid-Michigan today, but much of the state.

At times on Tuesday, the Air Quality around the state of Michigan was registering numbers on the Air Quality Index (AQI) that were some of the highest in the world when it came to air pollution.

In addition to the haze and fog that accompanied that smoke, many around the area noticed the smell that came along with it. The descriptions of that smell varied, but one of the most common descriptions seemed to be that smoke smelled like burnt plastic. Regardless of your description, it didn’t seem to be our traditional campfire smoke smell that many are accustomed to.

We decided to see if we could find some answers on why that smell occurred, and thanks to our meteorological contacts at the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE), we were able to get an answer on what may have caused it.

According to a toxicologist at EGLE: “Wood fires emit a lot of volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Most of these VOCs are noticeable to our noses as the familiar “campfire” smell, but they break down quickly when exposed to UV radiation from sunlight. Other VOCs like benzene, formaldehyde and acrolein are also released and they outlast the ‘campfire’ VOCs. It’s these chemical compounds that you’re smelling as the smoke wafts around for a few days and settles to the ground and reaches your nose.”

Although there are several fires burning in Canada, and different fires may have different explanations, this explanation may at least explain what we experienced locally today.

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