Inhaling smoke from wildfires might be even worse for your health than originally thought, researchers say. According to a study in the journal Science, wildfire smoke is teeming with microbes and fungi, and there has been little investigation of their effect on the people downwind. "There are many trillions of microbes in smoke that haven’t really been incorporated in an understanding ... of human health," says study co-author Leda Kobziar, the University of Idaho’s wildland fire science director, per the Los Angeles Times. "At this point, it’s really unknown. The diversity of microbes that we’ve found are really mind-bending." The researchers believe the microbes could cause or exacerbate infections in people hundreds of miles downwind from wildfire.
The researchers say microbes and fungi have the potential to travel hundreds of miles in smoke, depending on conditions, and in some cases even proliferate while airborne. They note that there are "compelling overlaps" between growing rates of fungal disease and increased wildfire smoke in recent years, NPR reports. Firefighters, they note, are at higher risk of becoming sick with "Valley fever," an infection caused by fungi found in soil in western states. "I think that the connections haven't been made in the past because it's a very new idea to think of smoke as having a living component," says Kobziar. The researchers say that since climate change is going to make the future a lot smokier for millions of people, further study of the issue is vital, and people should take precautions when air quality becomes poor. (Read more wildfires stories.)