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Ugh! Look what was in the wildfire smoke we were breathing

Images of smoke particles from WWU’s scanning electron microscope show, clockwise from top left:  a 1 micron soot particle magnified 30,000 times; 10 micron particle of wood plant debris magnified 8,000 times; 2 micron soot particle coated with tar-like goo magnified 25,000 times; soot and woody debris magnified 15,000 times; a ; 0.7 micron tar ball (the orange sphere) and soot particle magnified 14,000 times; and a 100 nanometer-wide soot particle, magnified 80,000 times. The web-like pattern is the filter used to snare the particles.
Images of smoke particles from WWU’s scanning electron microscope show, clockwise from top left: a 1 micron soot particle magnified 30,000 times; 10 micron particle of wood plant debris magnified 8,000 times; 2 micron soot particle coated with tar-like goo magnified 25,000 times; soot and woody debris magnified 15,000 times; a ; 0.7 micron tar ball (the orange sphere) and soot particle magnified 14,000 times; and a 100 nanometer-wide soot particle, magnified 80,000 times. The web-like pattern is the filter used to snare the particles. Courtesy to The Bellingham Herald

The smoky skies in late August left many Bellingham residents wondering what the heck we were sucking into our lungs.

A Western Washington University researcher now has some idea, after looking at particles he collected under a scanning electron microscope, or SEM.

“I thought that people would be interested to see what the things they were breathing looked like,” said research associate Mike Kraft, a geologist and a scanning electron microscopy specialist.

Smoke from wildfires in British Columbia and elsewhere fouled the skies across the Puget Sound region for more than a week in mid-August, at times sending air in Whatcom County into the “hazardous” range for particulates.

Kraft used WWU’s new SEM to image smoke particles that he collected on a tiny grid, then colorized them for easier viewing.

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An amorphous carbon support grid held the particles of soot and tar for examination under an electron microscope. Robert Mittendorf The Bellingham Herald

His results were an amalgam of science and art, magnified up to 80,000 times.

“I figured that it was something that everybody’s dealing with,” Kraft said.

“I started looking at these (particles) and they were a lot smaller than I thought. A lot of the particles were smaller than what the masks would filter out.”

Kraft said he gets lots of wide-eyed reactions from people who view his images.

“We use (the SEM) for research — that’s its primary purpose. But part of the educational mantra involves the broader community,” he said.

As he produced his work — with the help of some students and a WWU worker who provided a filter — Kraft said he was thinking of images created by astronomers and geologists, photographs that celebrate the wonders of nature and the universe.

He found particles of woody plant debris, soot, and a tar-like goo.

Seth Preston at the Northwest Clean Air Agency, which monitored air quality during the smoke emergency, said that’s pretty much what smoke is — the unburned products of combustion.

Kraft said that collecting the samples was pretty simple.

“I went out with that little grid and waved it around outside. I drove off the hill and I couldn’t see across the bay at all,” he said.

Robert Mittendorf: 360-756-2805, @BhamMitty

Washington state health officials are urging residents to be prepared for smoky days with poor air quality as wildfire season heats up. Seniors, young children and people with existing respiratory problems are especially vulnerable.

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