With nearly 600 wildfires burning across the province—more than in the 2017 record wildfire season—and smoke blanketing the skies, special air quality statements have been issued for much of B.C. For some people, the smoky conditions can exacerbate or cause health problems.
“Wildfire smoke is a potentially harmful form of air pollution, similar to vehicle exhaust or industrial emissions,” said Sarah Henderson, senior scientist with Environmental Health Services at the BCCDC and associate professor with the School of Population and Public Health at the University of British Columbia.
“We have wildfires and smoke every summer in British Columbia but our seasons are getting more intense and more people are being exposed for longer periods. It is important to be aware that wildfire smoke can affect your health and to take precautions to protect yourself by reducing your exposure, especially if you are sensitive to the smoke.”
Who is most at risk?
- People with pre-existing chronic conditions such as asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), diabetes, and heart disease
- Women who are pregnant
- Infants and small children
Healthy people can be affected too—everyone responds differently—so listen to your body.
What to watch for
Forest fire smoke contains small particles that travel deep into your lungs when you inhale. These particles can cause irritation and an immune response, similar to those caused by bacteria or viruses. This immune response can last until the air quality improves. Most symptoms are relatively mild, and can be managed without medical attention:
- Sore throat
- Eye irritation
- Runny nose
- Mild cough
- Phlegm production
- Wheezy breathing
Some people may experience more severe symptoms and should seek prompt medical attention. Call HealthLink BC (8-1-1), talk to your primary care physician or visit a walk-in clinic if you’re experiencing:
- Shortness of breath
- Severe cough
- Chest pain
- Heart palpitations
How to protect yourself from wildfire smoke
Reduce your exposure to smoke and seek clean air:
- Take it easy on smoky days because the faster you breathe, the more smoke you inhale
- Use a portable HEPA air filter to clean the air in one area of your home
- Visit public spaces such as community centres, libraries, and shopping malls which tend to have better indoor air quality because they have larger air filtration systems
- Drink lots of water to help reduce inflammation
- If you are working outdoors, use an N95 respirator that has been properly fitted by occupational health and safety professionals.
People with pre-existing medical conditions should take extra precautions and should keep their rescue medications with them at all times. If you cannot get your symptoms under control, seek prompt medical attention.
Areas of the Okanagan are experiencing very high Air Quality Health Index (AQHI) values. What does that mean and what special precautions should be taken?
People at risk should avoid strenuous or physical activities outdoors. For everyone else, reduce strenuous activities outdoors especially if you are experiencing symptoms such as coughing or throat irritation.
Is poor air quality going to be the new normal for B.C. summers?
Climate change is expected to cause dryer and hotter summer conditions in B.C. which can lead to more wildfires. Reducing wildfire risk in communities across the province should be a year-round priority every year. The best thing individuals and public health authorities can do is to be prepared for more extreme weather year-round, including wildfire season.
Do we need to be concerned about long-term health impacts from wildfire smoke?
Most health effects cause by wildfire smoke will improve when the smoke clears, and the chances of long-term effects are low. However, there is not much evidence on this topic because it takes years to study. It is important to take precautions to avoid wildfire smoke, especially for pregnant women, infants, and those with respiratory conditions such as asthma and COPD.