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Why does the wildfire smoke in Northern Michigan smell like burning plastic?

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The Canadian wildfires have been burning for several weeks now, and the smoke produced by these ongoing wildfires has been transported into the Midwest.

This is thanks to a low-pressure system that has been circulating over the area since Monday, causing winds to carry the smoke from north to south.

The system has slowly made its way out of the area Wednesday, and winds have shifted, reducing the amount of smoke coming into Northern Michigan.

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However, there is still a slight smoky haze over the area, and there was a much heavier film in the sky Tuesday, which left a lingering odor behind as well. While to many this may have smelled like your typical campfire, many also complained about a burning plastic scent. While it seems odd, there is an explanation for the plastic-like smell.

What causes the burning plastic smell?

According to a toxicologist at the Michigan Environment, Great Lakes and Energy Department:

“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.”

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What are VOCs?

Volatile organic compounds are compounds that have a high vapor pressure, meaning they evaporate easily at room temperature.

They are emitted through certain processes or from certain products. Some more recognizable VOCs include formaldehyde, acrolein and benzene, as mentioned above.

There are both indoor and outdoor sources of VOCs, some indoor sources being paint, adhesives, cleaners, air fresheners and furniture.

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Outdoor sources include gasoline, diesels emissions, industrial emissions, pesticides and wood burning.

When will air quality improve?

Air quality alerts are in place through Thursday. Even though air quality improved for many on Wednesday, it is important to keep your eyes on the air quality in your area and limit your time outside if levels are unhealthy. Groups that tend to be more at risk include children, older adults and people with pre-existing conditions.

If you find yourself in any of these groups, it is especially important that you limit your time outdoors if air quality is considered unhealthy.

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Air quality is expected to improve by this weekend, with some wet weather and shifting winds pushing out most of the haze by the end of the workweek.



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