New project to produce quick test for wildfire smoke exposure

Closeup of Annie Du.
Annie Du (photo courtesy of PNNL).

A Washington State University-led research team is working to develop an inexpensive paper sensor that can rapidly provide information on a person’s smoke exposure during wildfire season.

The researchers, including those from the University of Washington and the University of Georgia, have received a four-year, $1.9 million grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to develop the sensor. With the increasing number and size of wildfires in recent years, the researchers would like to seek better information on people’s smoke exposure to understand and mitigate its health impacts more effectively.

“Our goal is to quickly identify the exposure onsite in real-time and report it with a smartphone reader, so agencies can quickly identify the exposure level and location and make decisions for a hazard prevention strategy,” said Annie Du, a research professor in WSU’s School of Mechanical and Materials Engineering who is leading the project.

Currently, estimates of a person’s smoke exposure level are not exact. Agencies determine how much smoke a person may be exposed to based on computer models that use regional meteorology, satellite data, air quality sensors in the region, or even personal perceptions of smoke levels. Those methods sometimes miss the big variations in smoke that can happen in a small area, for instance. They also don’t get a person’s specific exposure levels to specific chemicals.

There are blood tests to measure smoke exposure, but they’re cumbersome and expensive, requiring that samples be sent to a laboratory for analysis. When fires are in remote areas, getting information on a person’s exposure is even more difficult.

Du along with her colleagues have developed a paper biosensor that uses a single-atom artificial enzyme called a nanozyme, to detect and amplify the signal from wildfire smoke biomarkers in blood or urine. Most paper sensors, such as COVID tests, use tiny gold nanoparticles to detect antibodies or viruses.

Unlike the COVID test strip, which only determines whether or not a person has COVID, their sensor will be able to quantify the amount of smoke as well as which chemicals someone has been exposed to. The sensor will be connected to a smartphone, so that using a phone’s location data, researchers could then determine exactly where smoke levels are most hazardous and identify the chemicals present in different neighborhoods.

As part of the project, the researchers will test blood samples of firefighters during fire season and then validate their sensors with lab results. While they will initially test with wildland firefighters, they hope the technology can someday be used by the public to better assess personal exposure levels.

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