Isocyanic acid … just the name says you should play it like Bill Clinton and not inhale.
Breathe easy, unless you regularly inhale the smoke of forest fires or have a leaky wood-burning stove, the pollutant doesn't seem to be a first world problem. Isocyanic acid enters the atmosphere when biomass, such as wood, grass and other plant material, is burned and could be a serious health risk to people who cook over biomass fires every day. Billions of the global 99 percent use insufficiently vented cooking and heating stoves, which could be exposing whole families to the chemical.
Cigarette smokers also are exposed to extremely high levels of isocyanic acid, which adds one more chemical to the cancer stick's mix.
Exposure to isocyanic acid is associated with cataracts, as well as tissue inflammation linked to both cardiovascular disease and rheumatoid arthritis.
The chemical is hard to measure in the atmosphere. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration had to build a special to device to detect it. Last year, a NOAA study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, was the first to find isocyanic acid in the atmosphere.
The chemical was found in the air downwind from a Colorado wildfire and in downtown Los Angeles, though the concentrations were not above the threshold (1 part per billion by volume) where the airborne acid becomes a health risk. The concentration in cigarette smoke was too high to measure.
A follow-up study, published recently in the Journal of Geophysical Research-Atmospheres, found the pollutant at higher doses in parts of tropical Africa, Southeast Asia, China, Siberia and the Western Amazon Basin. All of those places have either massive forest fires, inefficiently designed biomass fueled stoves or both.
Southeast Asia was the region of most concern from a health perspective. NOAA found that 50 million people may be exposed to potentially dangerous levels of the pollutant for more than seven days per year.
One method to reduce home exposure to isocyanic acid and the other harmful effects of smoke inhalation is to construct improved stoves with chimneys. Only a few parts need to be purchased and the rest can be improvised or built from clay. I helped build one in a remote home in western Honduras. The construction took only a few hours yet reaped a lifetime of health benefits.
Top photo: A 2007 forest fire in Florida. Credit: Mark Wolfe/FEMA, Wikimedia Commons.
Bottom photo: Alvaro Bautista toasts coffee on an improved stove he built himself. The fire is contained and all the smoke floats up the chimney. Credit: Tim Wall.