Seven studies on wildfire’s health effects receive $3.4 million in funding

Seven studies on wildfire’s health effects receive $3.4 million in funding

14 March 2017

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Canada — A long-term examination of the Fort McMurray wildfire’s health effects on first responders is one of seven wildfire-related health studies that will receive about $500,000 out of a total of $3.4 million in funding.

The funding, announced on Tuesday, comes through the partnership of the Canadian Institute of Health Research (CIHR), Alberta Innovates and the Canadian Red Cross. With this funding, University of Alberta researcher Dr. Nicola Cherry will be able to conduct a wider examination on the wildfire’s impact on first responders’ lungs and mental health.

The first phase of Cherry’s study was conducted in the weeks following the fire, when her team had 355 firefighters fill out questionnaires and give breath, urine and blood samples.

The research team will now try reach to all of the roughly 2,000 structural firefighters and the 1,000 wildland firefighters who fought the May wildfire, through separate online surveys.

“It is very important to us that we reach large numbers,” Cherry said.

A large sample size is essential if the team is to identify any emerging rare diseases among the firefighters, she said.

The study is also meant to find ways of preventing adverse health effects for firefighters from fire exposure.

“One of the main objects of Phase 2 is to help identify the source of the respiratory protection that has been useful,” Cherry said, adding that firefighters used various kinds of respiratory protection during the fire, while some had no protection at times.

“The other aspect of prevention is to look at what kind of mental health provision was made available to the firefighters while they were there, since they came back and even today.”

The funding will allow Cherry and her team to follow up with firefighters over a two-year period. Firefighters will be asked for their consent for the research team to view their medical records so researchers can . For those who do, the researchers will be able to follow up with them at intervals over the next 15 years.

“In the last few months of the study, if the results of the study suggest it’s important to do so, we’ll go back to some of them and assess their condition,” she said. “To see if their lung function really is different than what we would expect, or their mental health to see whether it does fit formal definitions of, say, PTSD.”

Wildland firefighters can participate in the online survey here, and structural firefighters can participate in a separate online survey.

The purposes of the other studies range from testing stress intervention techniques for pregnant women and new mothers to examining the health and well-being of the indigenous residents of the RMWB.

In September the CIHR invited researchers to submit their proposals for research into the health effects of the wildfire. Research projects were then selected for funding from the pool of applicants.

The other studies include:

Lead researcher: Dr. Geneviève Belleville, Université Laval

The research team will aim to understand the mental health needs of the people of Fort McMurray and make widely available tools to help alleviate peoples’ psychological distress and promote resilience. Data generated from the study will be used by the province’s health authorities to develop mental health services.

Lead researcher: Dr. Arthur Chan, University of Toronto

The team will determine whether or not the residual ash from the fires will pose health risks to the people of Fort McMurray and surrounding areas. The team will collect indoor dust from homes and outdoor ash samples and measure the concentration of known toxic compounds that can cause lung diseases at high enough concentrations.

Lead researcher: Dr. Chris Le, University of Alberta

Dr. Le will lead a team to measure and compare the level of chemical contaminants, before and after the wildfires, in traditional foods such as local game meat and locally harvested plants in the Mikisew Cree First Nation, Fort McKay First Nation and Métis communities.

Lead researcher: Dr. Stephanie Montesanti, University of Alberta

The team will partner with the Nistawoyou Association Friendship Centre to examine how the health and well-being of the Indigenous residents of the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo were impacted by the wildfires.

Lead researcher: Dr. David Olson, University of Alberta

The team will study a group of pregnant women and new mothers who were forced to evacuate because of the wildfires. These women will be asked to engage in short bursts of expressive writing about their feelings about the fires to determine if this form of therapy reduces stress and improves their pregnancy outcomes and newborn development.

Lead researcher: Dr. Peter Silverstone, University of Alberta

The team will study the effects of the wildfires and evacuation on the psychological and emotional health of children and adolescents 5-18 years of age, with a view to better understanding the factors that contribute to positive mental health and resiliency.

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