Pratley & Partners

Smoke Inhalation is Potentially More Deadly Than Fire

Wednesday, 5 August 2020

Fire can be deadly if it is left to its own devices. Most, if not all of us, are taught from a very early age that fire kills. Playing with fire is an oft used analogy, and is attributed to how quickly fire can run out of control with devastating consequences. But how many of us know that more people die from the effects of smoke inhalation than from fire itself?

Smoke kills! Not necessarily immediately but more often than we realise. We know smoke smells bad, and we teach our children that smoke should not be inhaled. We know these things but how many of us know the physiological effects of smoke inhalation?

Smoke is noxious

Smoke is noxious as a result of the chemical reactions which have generated the smoke. Smoke is hot. It can damage the skin on contact. Smoke obscures vision which can hinder escape from a burning building. Provision for smoke ventilation from buildings is a critical design requirement.

Smoke is formed of minute particles. If the smoke in a building is not vented quickly, the particle count becomes denser rapidly. The particles from which smoke forms are combustible by their nature. Explosion and flashover is an ever present danger if the concentration of combustible particles is sufficiently heated to ignition temperature.

In addition to being chemically toxic, hot smoke can be damaging to the skin, eyes, and lungs and lead to disablement. Further, it can obscure vision, hindering escape. Explosion or flashover can occur if the concentration of smoke particles is sufficient and the particles have been heated to their ignition temperature.

Smoke damages lungs

Windows in buildings can be operated by manual window controls or electric window controls from a single remote location so ventilation of smoke and toxins can be expedited rapidly. Rapid evacuation of smoke will reduce the deadly potential of smoke. The less smoke in a building, the less is the likelihood of it being breathed in by anyone unfortunate enough to be in the building.

Smoke is composed of many potentially harmful compounds. Cyanide is deadly; even the relatively low level present in smoke is highly toxic. Nitrogen and sulphur compounds produced as a result of the chemical reactions of a fire are also highly toxic. Additionally, hydrogen sulphide, a by-product of combustion is corrosive, poisonous and deadly in relatively small doses.

Sulphur dioxide is a pre-cursor to sulphuric acid. Further, sulphur dioxide is a major pollutant, which emanates from factory chimneys, car exhausts and naturally occurs from volcanic eruption. In the atmosphere it mixes with water vapour and falls as acid rain. The human body is composed of 90% water. Your lungs become a bath of acid rain.

If the smoke is sufficiently hot enough but not quite hot enough to combust, breathing in that smoke can cause serious damage to the lungs. Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease – COPD – is a common post smoke inhalation ailment. The small areolas in the lungs are often damaged beyond repair. Breathing can be difficult and painful. Life expectancy is cut short.

Long-Term Effects of Smoke Inhalation

The long term effect of smoke inhalation is increasing shortage of breath, even with the slightest of exertion. Additionally, this will place extra strain on the heart as it tries to deliver more blood to the lungs which are no longer working efficiently. High blood pressure is a common theme in post smoke inhalation victims.

Cyanide will kill of brain cells. It is now considered that the above average heart attack rate in fire-fighters is as a direct result of accumulated cyanide poisoning. The higher the concentration, the quicker the death, the smaller the concentration, the more spread out the suffering of the victim.

It is not uncommon for smoke inhalation victims to suffer vocal cord damage, breathlessness, decreasing pulmonary efficiency and dizziness, all of which increase in severity over time.


While the burning effects of fire can be immediately deadly, smoke is no less deadly. You may recover from smoke inhalation but incurable damage may already have occurred within your lungs.

Take every precaution in a building; know where escape routes are and where they lead. If the fire is small and localised, you may be able to use extinguishers located locally to extinguish the fire. If the building has manual window controls find out where they are. One day you may have to operate them; your life may depend on it.

Ultraflex Control Systems
Kingspan STG - Light & Air
Window Master Natural Ventilation
Clearline Window Controls