International Journal of Wildland Fire International Journal of Wildland Fire Society
Journal of the International Association of Wildland Fire

Volatile and semi-volatile organic compounds in smoke exposure of firefighters during prescribed burning in the Mediterranean region

Toussaint Barboni A B , Magali Cannac A , Vanina Pasqualini A , Albert Simeoni A , Eric Leoni A and Nathalie Chiaramonti A
+ Author Affiliations
- Author Affiliations

A Université de Corse, Equipe Feux, UMR-CNRS (Unités Mixte Recherches-Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique) 6134, Sciences Pour l’Environnement, BP 52, F-20250 Corte, France.

B Corresponding author. Email:

International Journal of Wildland Fire 19(5) 606-612
Submitted: 14 July 2008  Accepted: 4 November 2009   Published: 9 August 2010


Prescribed fires can be used as a forest management tool to reduce the severity of wildfires. Thus, over prolonged and repeated periods, firefighters are exposed to toxic air contaminants. This work consisted in collecting and analysing smoke released by typical Mediterranean vegetation during prescribed burning. Sampling was performed at five active zones on the island of Corsica. Seventy-nine compounds were identified: volatile organic compounds and semi-volatile organic compounds, including polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. Depending on exposure levels, the toxins present in smoke may cause short-term or long-term damage to firefighters’ health. The dangerous compounds emitted, benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene and xylenes, were quantified. Their concentrations varied as a function of the study site. These variations were due to the intrinsic and extrinsic characteristics of the fire site (e.g. plant species, fire intensity and wind). Our results show that benzene concentration is high during prescribed burning, close to the exposure limit value or short-term exposure limit. Benzene can be considered as a toxicity tracer for prescribed burning because its concentration was above the exposure limit value at all the study sites. The authors suggest that respirators should be used to protect staff during prescribed burning operations.

Additional keywords: air quality, BTEXs, firefighter exposure, forest fire smoke, SVOC, VOC.


We thank the ONF and the forest firefighters for carrying out prescribed burning on our study sites. The authors acknowledge the European Community for partial financial support (Programme Interet Communautaire). We are pleased to acknowledge financial support from the Ministry of Agriculture and Fishing (Groupement d’Intérêt Scientifique Incendie program) and the National Research Agency under contract no. NT05–2_44411.


Adams RP (2001) ‘Identification of Essential Oils by Capillary Gas Chromatography/Mass Spectroscopy.’ (Allured: Carol Stream, IL)

Alén R, Kuoppala E , Oesch P (1996) Formation of the main degradation compound groups from wood and its components during pyrolysis. Journal of Analytical and Applied Pyrolysis  36, 137–148.
CrossRef |

Andreae MO , Merlet P (2001) Emission of trace gases and aerosols from biomass burning. Global Biogeochemical Cycles  15, 955–966.
CrossRef | CAS |

Austin CC, Wang D (2002) VOC chemical fingerprinting: combustion sources and environmental monitoring. In ‘EnviroAnalysis: the 4th Biennial International Conference on Chemical Measurement and Monitoring of the Environment’, 27–30 May, Toronto, ON, Canada.

Austin CC, Wang D, Ecobichon DJ , Dussault G (2001) Characterization of volatile organic compounds in smoke at municipal structural fires. Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health. Part A  63, 437–458.
CrossRef | CAS | PubMed |

Brown JK , Bradshaw LS (1994) Comparisons of particulate-emissions and smoke impacts from presettlement, full suppression, and prescribed natural fire period in the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness. International Journal of Wildland Fire  4(3), 143–155.
CrossRef |

Butt D (2006) Formation of phenols from the low-temperature fast pyrolysis of Radiata pine (Pinus radiata) – Part II. Interaction of molecular oxygen and substrate water. Journal of Analytical and Applied Pyrolysis  76, 48–54.
CrossRef | CAS |

Chen L, Verrall K , Tong S (2006) Air particulate pollution due to bushfires and respiratory hospital admissions in Brisbane, Australia. International Journal of Environmental Health Research  16, 181–191.
CrossRef | CAS | PubMed |

Dokas I, Statheropoulos M , Karma S (2007) Integration of field chemical data in initial risk assessment of forest fire smoke. The Science of the Total Environment  376, 72–85.
CrossRef | CAS | PubMed |

Dost FN (1991) Acute toxicology of components of vegetation smoke. Reviews of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology  119, 1–46.

CAS | PubMed |

Faix O, Fortman I, Bremer J , Meier D (1991) Thermal degradation products of wood, gas chromatographic separation and mass spectrometric characterization of polysaccharide-derived products. Holz als Roh und Werkstoff  49, 213–219.

CAS | | CrossRef |

Fernandes P , Botelho H (2004) Analysis of prescribed burning practice in the pine forest of north-western Portugal. Journal of Environmental Management  70, 15–26.
CrossRef | CAS | PubMed |

Fernandes P , Rigolot E (2007) The fire ecology and management of maritime pine (Pinus pinaster Ait.). Forest Ecology and Management  241, 1–13.
CrossRef |

Fowler CT (2003) Human health impacts of forest fires in the southern United States: a literature review. Journal of Ecological Anthropology  7, 39–59.

Friedli HR, Atlas E, Stroud VR, Giovani L, Campas T , Radke LF (2001) Volatile organic trace gases emitted from North American wildfires. Global Biochemistry Cycles  15, 435–452.
CrossRef | CAS |

Graham RT, McCaffrey S, Jain TB (2004) Science basis for changing forest structure to modify wildfire behavior and severity. USDA Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station, General Technical Report RMRS-GTR-120. (Fort Collins, CO)

Hoerning JM, Evans MA, Aerts DJ , Ragland KW (1996) Organic emissions from combustion of pine, plywood, and particleboard. Energy & Fuels  10, 299–304.
CrossRef | CAS |

Jennings W, Shibamoto T (1980) ‘Qualitative Analysis of Flavor and Fragrance Volatiles by Glass Capillary Gas Chromatography.’ (Academic Press: New York)

Johnson FH, Kavanagh AM, Bowman DM , Scott RS (2002) Exposure to bushfire smoke and asthma: an ecological study. The Medical Journal of Australia  176, 535–538.

PubMed |

Joulain D, König WA (1998) ‘The Atlas of Spectral Data of Sesquiterpene Hydrocarbons.’ (EB-Verlag: Hamburg, Germany)

Kelly J (1992) Health Hazard Evaluation Report. USDI, National Park Service, Gallatin National Forest, Montana. HETA 91-312-2185. (US Department of Health and Human Services, Public Health Service, Centers for Disease Control and National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health: Cincinnati, OH)

König WA, Hochmuth DH, Joulain D (2001) ‘Terpenoids and Related Constituents of Essential Oils.’ Library of Massfinder 2.1. (University of Hamburg, Institute of Organic Chemistry: Hamburg)

Korontzi S, Ward DE, Susott RA, Yokelson RJ, Justice CO, Hobbs PV, Smithwick EAH , Hao WM (2003) Seasonal variation and ecosystem dependence of emission factors for selected trace gases and PM2.5 for southern African savanna fires. Journal of Geophysical Research  108, 4758–4762.
CrossRef |

Lee KH, Kim JE, Kim YJ, Kim J , Hoyningen-Huene W (2005) Impact of the smoke aerosol from Russian forest fires on the atmospheric environment over Korea during May 2003. Atmospheric Environment  39, 85–99.
CrossRef | CAS |

Malilay J (1999) A review of factors affecting the human health impacts of air pollutants from forest fires. In ‘Health Guidelines for Vegetation Fire Events: Background Papers’. pp. 255–270. (World Health Organization, Geneva)

Margossian N (2002) ‘Risque Chimique.’ (Dunod: Paris)

Miranda AI (2004) An integrated numerical system to estimate air quality effects of forest fires. International Journal of Wildland Fire  13, 217–226.
CrossRef |

Miranda AI, Ferreira J, Valente J, Santos P, Amorim JH , Borrego C (2005) Smoke measurements during Gestosa-2002 experimental field fires. International Journal of Wildland Fire  14, 107–116.
CrossRef |

Miranda AI, Monteiro A, Martins V, Carvalho A, Schaap M, Builjes P, Borrego C (2007) Forest Fires Impact on Air Quality over Portugal. In ‘29th International Technical Meeting on Air Pollution Modelling and its Application’, 24–28 September, Aveiro, Portugal. (Ed. A Carvalho) pp. 185–192.

Morawska LH , Zhang J (2002) Combustions sources of particles. 1. Health relevance and source signatures. Chemosphere  49, 1045–1058.
CrossRef | CAS | PubMed |

Mott JA, Mannino DM, Alversona CJ, Kiyub A, Hashimb J, Lee T, Falther K , Redd SC (2005) Cardiorespiratory hospitalizations associated with smoke exposure during the 1997 South-east Asian forest fires. International Journal of Hygiene and Environmental Health  208, 75–85.
CrossRef | PubMed |

Muraleedharan TR, Radojevic M, Waugh A , Caruana A (2000) Chemical characterisation of the haze in Brunei Darussalam during the 1998 episode. Atmospheric Environment  34, 2725–2731.
CrossRef | CAS |

Reh CM, Deitchman SD (1992) Health hazard evaluation report, USDI National Park Service, HETA 88-320-2176. (Yellowstone National Park, WY)

Reinhardt TE , Ottmar RD (2004) Baseline measurements of smoke exposure among wildland firefighters. Journal of Occupational and Environmental Hygiene  1, 593–606.
CrossRef | CAS | PubMed |

Reinhardt TE, Ottmar RD, Hanneman A (2000) Smoke exposure among firefighters at prescribed burns in the Pacific Northwest. USDA Forest Service, Pacific Northwest Research Station, Research Paper PNW-RP-526. (Seattle, WA)

Reisen F , Brown SK (2009) Australian firefighters’ exposure to air toxics during bushfire burns of autumn 2005 and 2006. Environment International  35, 342–352.
CrossRef | CAS | PubMed |

Reisen F, Brown S , Cheng M (2006) Air toxics in bushfire smoke – firefighters exposure during prescribed burns. Forest Ecology and Management  234(Suppl. 1), S144.
CrossRef |

Rezzi S, Bighelli A, Mouillot D , Casanova J (2001) Composition and chemical variability of the needle essential oil of Pinus nigra subsp. laricio from Corsica. Flavour and Fragrance Journal  16, 379–383.
CrossRef | CAS |

Rigolot E (2003) Le feu domestiqué: outil de gestion des espaces méditerranéens. Forêt méditerranéenne  1, 37–44.

Schauer JJ, Kleeman MJ, Cass G , Simoneit BT (2001) Measurement of emissions from air pollution sources. 3. C1–C29 organic compounds from fireplace combustion of wood. Environmental Engineering Science  35, 1716–1728.


Slaughter JC, Koenig JQ , Reinhardt TE (2004) Association between lung function and exposure to smoke among firefighters at prescribed burns. Journal of Occupational and Environmental Hygiene  1, 45–49.
CrossRef | CAS | PubMed |

Statheropoulos M , Karma S (2007) Complexity and origin of the smoke components as measured near the flame-front of a real forest fire incident: a case study. Journal of Analytical and Applied Pyrolysis  78, 430–437.
CrossRef | CAS |

Stefanidou M , Athanaselis S (2004) Toxicological aspects of fire. Veterinary and Human Toxicology  46, 196–199.

CAS | PubMed |

van Den Dool H , Kratz PDA (1963) Generalization of the retention index system including linear temperature programmed gas-liquid partition chromatography. Journal of Chromatography. A  11, 463–471.
CrossRef | CAS |

Wade DD, Ward DE (1973) An analysis of the Air Force Bomb Range Fire. USDA Forest Service, Southeastern Forest Experiment Station, Research Paper SE-105. (Asheville, NC)

Ward DE (1989) Air toxics and fireline exposure. In ‘Tenth Conference on Fire and Forest Meteorology’, 17–21 April 1989, Ottawa, Canada. (Eds DC McIver, H Auld, R Whitewood) pp. 184–193. (Forestry Canada: Ottawa, ON)

Weber MG , Taylor SW (1992) The use of prescribed fire in the management of Canada’s forested lands. Forestry Chronicle  68, 324–334.

Wise EK (2008) Meteorologically influenced wildfire impacts on urban particulate matter and visibility in Tucson, Arizona, USA. International Journal of Wildland Fire  17, 214–223.
CrossRef |

Export Citation Cited By (8)