Chemical in Smoke May Pose Health Risk

By Robert Preidt
June 06, 2011, 4:06:29 AM EDT

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A chemical in smoke from cigarettes, forest fires and cooking/heating fires may pose a health risk, a new study indicates.

Researchers designed a custom mass spectrometer to look at levels of the chemical, isocyanic acid, in the atmosphere. Until now, it was difficult to detect the chemical with conventional measurement techniques, explained the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) scientists and their colleagues.

They tested and found isocyanic acid in the air in urban Los Angeles; in the air in Boulder, Colo. downwind of a 2010 wildfire; in laboratory burning experiments at high concentrations; and in cigarette smoke.

They also found that isocyanic acid dissolves readily in water, which means people can experience direct exposure to the chemical if it gets in their eyes or lungs.

The study appears in this week's issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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