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HomeCanadaProtecting Yourself from Wildfire Smoke's Health Effects | Breaking:

Protecting Yourself from Wildfire Smoke’s Health Effects | Breaking:


As climate change intensifies and hot, dry wildfire conditions last longer, Canadians can expect more summers with smoky skies. With that smoke comes serious potential health consequences for everyone, including children, elderly Canadians, and those with pre-existing health conditions.

Breaking: spoke to several health and climate experts who say that with proper planning, those risks can be reduced. But it requires action before, during and even after the smoke has cleared.

Before you head out

A first step, experts say, may be to check the air quality forecast before heading out the door.

“What you can do is look at the AQHI, the Air Quality Health Index, and think about adjusting your activity,” advised Samantha Green, family physician at Unity Health Toronto and incoming president of the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment.

Developed in partnership with Health Canada and the provinces, the AQHI updates twice a day and provides a risk rating on a scale of one to 10+ for many Canadian cities across today, tomorrow and the day after tomorrow. One to three represents low health risk, four to six is ​​moderate risk, and seven to 10 is considered high risk. Very high pollution levels are considered “10+”.

“So maybe don’t go for those outdoor runs when the AQHI is high,” Green said.

The tool could be particularly useful for certain at-risk populations who may not be able to leave the house if the air quality is too bad, helping them plan ahead.

“If you’re someone with an underlying health condition like asthma, then you need to pay even more attention to that AQHI,” Green said. “Think about even asking your doctor to renew your inhaler prior to forest fire smoke.”

In the centre of

The most common advice during poor air quality days is to stay indoors if possible and shut down all possible ways for smoke to enter your home.

“What we’re trying to do is encourage people to be careful and stay indoors with the windows closed, with the ventilation on if possible,” advised Dr. Courtney Howard, an emergency room physician in Yellowknife, who spoke to Breaking:. from Oxford, UK

A man waves to a tour boat as it fishes from the Port of Montreal on Monday. A smog warning is in effect for Montreal and multiple regions of Quebec due to wildfires. (The Canadian press)

Ventilation in this case can be in the form of air cleaning devices using highly efficient air filters. While not all air filters are equally effective, they don’t have to be expensive to operate, says Jeff Brook, an associate professor specializing in pollution, climate, and health at the University of Toronto’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health.

“Even simple do it yourself air purifiers can make a difference,” Brook said, “You can buy a box fan and a good MERV filter from Home Depot and put it together. There are instructions online to make your own indoor air cleaner.”

Sitting down for days may not always be realistic, Howard admits, comparing the difficulty to the isolation experienced during the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic. But a pandemic solution still works for anyone who needs to venture out on smoky days.

“One of the things you can do is buy the N95 masks that fit properly,” Howard said. “You can tell it’s a good fit (because) when you inhale, the mask sort of sucks into your face. If you feel the air coming up the sides, it’s not a good fit or you may need to mold it more to your face .”

Set something straight

Even after air quality advisories are lifted and the sky appears clear, there is work to be done. Howard says smoke can seep into a home unnoticed.

“So what that means is when the sky clears up again, make sure you open all the windows,” Howard recommended. “Let out the smoky air that has built up in your home.”

The specific risk of wildfires is exposure to ultrafine particles known as PM2.5. This is particulate matter that is 2.5 micrometers or smaller – much smaller on average than the diameter of a human hair, according to the United States Environmental Protection Agency.

LOOK | How wildfire smoke affects your health:

Protecting Yourself from Wildfire Smokes Health Effects

Smoke from wildfires blankets much of Canada, posing health risks

Hundreds of wildfires have blanketed much of the country in smoke and smog, posing real health risks – especially for vulnerable children and seniors, pregnant people and those with asthma and heart or lung disease.

“We haven’t found a safe exposure limit,” Howard explains.

He called the smoke a “poisonous soup” of these particles, the exact composition of which differs depending on the materials being burned and the amount of heat. But it is the small size of the particles that allows them to penetrate deeper into our body.

“It can go all the way into our lungs,” Howard explained, “and cause not only local irritation through all of our airways, but even cross over into our bloodstream and lead to inflammatory cascades.”

Howard co-authored a study published in the BMJ that looked at the effect on emergency departments in Yellowknife during the province’s intense 2014 wildfire season. She and her colleagues found that emergency room visits increased dramatically for people with asthma and pneumonia. They also found that hospital admissions went up for people with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

Brown smoke over a city street and water tower.
Wildfire Smoke Blankets Kingston, Ont., Tuesday. Experts recommend closing windows and other passageways to allow smoke to enter your home during periods of poor air quality, and to properly air your home once the smoke has cleared. (Dan Taekema/CBC)

Have a plan

Experts say the more people are exposed to smoky air, the worse the health effects can become.

And that smoke not only harms young, developing lungs — including in the womb — but also those of the elderly.

“As we age, we are more likely to live with chronic lung conditions such as asthma or COPD,” Dr. Samir Sinha, director of geriatrics at Sinai Health and the University Health Network in Toronto.

He advises checking in and helping older Canadians make a contingency plan for the kind of days we’ve seen over the past week.

Together with the Canadian Red Cross, he is developed a practical emergency guide for the elderly and their carers.

“The best thing we can do to stay out of the way is to have a plan.”

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