June 21st, 2024

Health Canada advises to be prepared for wildfire smoke risks

By ANNA SMITH on May 18, 2024.

Smoke from wildfires blankets the city of Edmonton as a couple has a picnic on May 11. Health Canada is warning all residents of Alberta of the risks of exposure to wildfire smoke and urges proper precautions.--CP Photo Jason Franson


As wildfire season takes hold across the province, Health Canada reminds residents that even if there are no fires in the area, smoke can travel thousands of kilometres and pose a health hazard.

Wildfire smoke is a serious air pollutant, said Health Canada regional air quality specialist, Opel Vuzi.

“The smoke is a mixture of several gases, vapour and fine particulates,” said Vuzi. “The main pollutants in the smoke that is our greatest risk to our health is the fine particulate matter; they are so small that when you breathe it, it goes deep into the lungs, and can be actually absorbed into your blood.”

From there, the particulates can transfer into various tissues and organs in the body and cause damage, including the kidneys, liver and even the brain, said Vuzi. Because of this, there is no safe level of exposure to wildfire smoke.

“The smoke affects everybody, it doesn’t matter whether you are healthy or not, but there are some people who are at a greater risk,” said Vuzi. Small children, those over the age of 65 and people with pre-existing respiratory conditions are especially vulnerable to the adverse effects of wildfire smoke exposure.

Effects can range from irritation of the eyes and throat, a mild cough, to shortness of breath, dizziness, asthma attacks and heart palpitations. In rare cases, it has been linked to heart attacks, strokes and reproductive and developmental effects, such as low birth weight.

Vuzi stressed the importance of mitigating the risk by remaining indoors on days with poor air quality and ensuring your home has proper filtration, as well as using an air purifier.

“You should make sure that your indoor environment is cool as well, because normally, sometimes the wildfire smoke event occurs during extreme heat, so you don’t want to be staying indoors and then you don’t have cooling, as the heat actually also affects our health,” said Vuzi.

Those who cannot remain indoors, such as construction workers or farmers, are advised to use a well-fitting and properly worn N95 or equivalent respirator, to reduce the level of exposure to particulates, though it cannot protect against the other gases. While using a mask, Vuzi said, it’s vital to pay attention to your body and take frequent breaks inside in well-filtered areas.

“The other thing is for you to actually be aware of how poor the air quality is outdoors,” said Vuzi. “That way, you can plan your work or your activities based on when it will be safe to do so.”

The air quality index is available online, as well as on the WeatherCAN app, with lower numbers indicating good air quality that is reasonable conditions for outdoor activities, where higher numbers indicate high levels of risk.

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