Why it’s still hard to understand the long-term health impacts of wildfire smoke

03 April 2019

Published by https://www.cfjctoday.com

CANADA – KAMLOOPS — Over the past two wildfire seasons, the sky in the Southern Interior was covered by a thick, grey blanket of smoke — sometimes for weeks at a time.

In some cities, it’s all you can smell as ash falls from the sky.

Before the 2017 wildfire season, smoke would often come and go in the province’s Interior within a matter of days. Chief Medical Health Officer Dr. Trevor Corneil with Interior Health says that’s no longer the case.

“Primarily, we’ve seen a difference in the amount of time it’s staying,” he says. “Certainly we’ve had fires every year in different parts of our region… What we’re finding now is with the number of fires in northeast B.C., down into the Interior, the smoke cloud covers the whole region, so more people are impacted and it is lasting, instead of several days to weeks, it’s several weeks, which is new.”

In years past, Interior Health has been called out for “downplaying” the long term health impacts of wildfire smoke exposure. The comments particularly came from local doctors who are part of the Kamloops Physicians for a Healthy Environment group.

Emails between Interior Health officials from the summer of 2017, obtained through a Freedom of Information request by CFJC Today, show IH employees were paying attention to the criticism but not commenting directly on it.

The health authority’s public health communications consultant, Lesley Coates, emailed Dr. Silvina Mema, Corneil, Dr. Kamran Golmohammadi, and Dr. Sue Pollock with a copy of a news story regarding the physicians’ group.

“Just an FYI — this individual continues to be critical of the PH response/messaging re: smoke impacts,” Coates said of Dr. Jill Calder.

“More coverage of the comments made several weeks ago by Dr. Michael Mehta from TRU when he questioned why the province and Interior Health were ‘downplaying’ the potential long term negative health impacts from the smoke. http://www.cfjctoday.com/column/587491/ih-should-speak-long-term-impacts…. Just an FYI — I don’t know that we need to do anything with this — other than monitor at this point,” Coates said in another email to the group.

The summer of 2017 was the first time cities across the province had experienced terrible air quality due to the smoke for weeks at a time, as opposed to days. Corneil says IH’s messaging about protecting yourself from the smoke hasn’t really changed, but the understanding of long-term health impacts has.

“Our message stays the same. Our message has always been don’t be too concerned, we don’t know, and we don’t think, there’s any impact to short-term exposure a few times over a few years,” he says. “We, to a large extent, for many years were the leaders on that messaging and when it was short-term exposure for a few days to a few weeks that messaging was the right messaging.

“What we’re able to do now that we have these longer events, is ask questions such as, ‘What is the longer term impact?’ and we know that we don’t have any evidence to support negative impact or if there’s a problem when we’re looking at weeks several times in a summer. So the messaging I would say it’s evolved provincially as we try to understand how to manage impacts of wildfire over time.”

The question of whether wildfire smoke has long-term health impacts won’t be answered in a matter of days or months, Dr. Sarah Henderson with the BC Centre of Disease Control says.

“That’s the thing about chronic effects, is they happen over years and years, so you need years and years to study them,” Henderson says. “So I think (the 2017 and 2018) seasons have really got people paying attention to this issue and hopefully what will follow is these kinds of studies that we need to address those questions.”

Henderson says the BCCDC is working to get funding to at least look at pregnant women and infants who are exposed during those extreme seasons, to see whether or not that exposure had effects on the health of those babies in early life. Henderson says the BCCDC is hopeful they can follow them for five to 10 years.

Emails between Interior Health officials and provincial officials over the past two years show that health authorities across the province have been working toward getting on the same page when it comes to messaging around wildfire smoke.

Last week, the BCCDC put out an updated document on health impacts of wildfire smoke, which includes:

  • Smoky air makes it harder for your lungs to get oxygen into your blood.
  • Wildfire smoke can also irritate your lungs and cause an immune response, which may lead to inflammation that affects other parts of the body.
  • Common symptoms during wildfire smoke exposure include eye irritation, runny nose, sore throat, mild cough, phlegm production, wheezy breathing or headaches. Such symptoms can generally be managed without medical attention.
  • Some people may have more severe symptoms, such as shortness of breath, severe cough, dizziness, chest pain or heart palpitations. If you experience any of these symptoms, you should seek prompt medical attention. Call HealthLink BC (8-1-1) for advice, talk to your primary care physician or visit a walk-in clinic.
  • Smoky air can also increase risk of some infections, especially pneumonia in older people and ear infections in children.

Henderson says there’s currently a study being done out of Australia on the health impacts of a large peat fire.

“They have developed a couple of cohorts of children and adults as well as women who are pregnant during that fire to follow them through the years to evaluate the effects of that smoke may have been,” she says. “The caveat on that study being that it was in Australia first of all, it was a peat fire rather than wildfire smoke which is a little bit different, and it affected quite a small population, so they may not be statistically powered to find the types of things they’re looking for. But evidence is starting to come out of that study now.

“It’s the first study that I know of that’s going to have literature available relatively soon, compared with us or compared with California or other places that are looking at this… We certainly know from other types of air pollution such as using solid fuels like wood or other things, coal, to cook with, that the people who use those fuels do have long-term impacts from those exposures so overall the evidence is not specific to wildfire smoke, but it does suggest that people really do want to protect themselves from smoke when it happens and that’ll protect them from both acute and any potential long-term effects.”

To protect yourself from wildfire smoke exposure, both the BCCDC and Interior Health suggest staying inside a clean air space, using portable air filters, and taking it easy if you do go outside.

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