Vancouver: Health experts warn that a shift in mindset and new solutions are needed as exposure to smoke from bigger wildfires becomes a regular occurrence.
While the longer-term health effects of exposure to wildfire smoke have yet to be thoroughly studied, linkages between disease, death and air pollution in general offer hints, said Dr. Courtney Howard, an emergency physician in Yellowknife.
“Stroke, heart disease, cancer, chronic or respiratory diseases, these are all worsened by air pollution,” Howard said in a recent interview from Cranbrook, B.C., where smoke from a nearby wildfire had rolled in while her family was at the beach.
“The same reasons we want to quickly move to a low-carbon economy to decrease impacts from fossil fuel-related air pollution are reasons for us to worry about wildfire-related pollution we’re now seeing enhanced as a result of climate change.”
Until recently, smoky skies in Western Canada have been occasional, making it difficult to study health impacts, said Michael Brauer, a professor focused on environment and health at the University of British Columbia’s faculty of medicine.
“When we get into a situation now, where this is happening every summer in some communities, and it may only be one to two weeks, but … that’s definitely the highest air pollution you will face throughout the whole year, what does that mean?”
It’s unclear if the smoke that’s experienced year after year has a cumulative effect, he said.
“It probably depends on all kinds of specific conditions, other risk factors.”
However, Brauer said, there does not seem to be much of a difference between the smoke and general air pollution when measuring for fine particulate matter, a mixture of tiny pollutants that can penetrate deeply into the respiratory system.
The potential cardiovascular effects of wildfire smoke are less well known compared with other kinds of air pollution, he said, “but based on what we know from air pollution in general, there’s very few organ systems that are not affected.”
The clearest impacts of wildfire smoke exposure are felt by people with pre-existing conditions, such as asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and evidence is building that smoke exposure can affect people with heart disease, trigger a heart attack or stroke, and aggravate type two diabetes, Brauer said.
A few studies suggest that pregnant women who are in their last trimester when exposed to smoke are more likely to give birth to a baby of lower weight, he added.
Another study in Montana found the rate of influenza was higher a few months after a bad fire season, he said, suggesting people were less able to fight the illness.
By Brenna Owen
The Canadian Press