While British Columbians are experiencing a much cooler and wetter spring this year, it’s still important to be prepared for wildfire activity as we move into the summer months. Sarah Henderson, scientific director of Environmental Health Services at BC Centre for Disease Control (BCCDC) explains that there is an important link between climate change, wildfires, and our health.
“Wildfires are becoming more frequent and intense as our climate changes, causing stress for people who are directly impacted and leading to episodes of poor air quality that can affect the whole province.”
Wildfire smoke is a form of air pollution that can affect your health. It is composed of a complex mixture of gasses and particles that interact and change in the air. The individual particles in wildfire smoke are very small, but they tend to stick together as they travel away from the fire. Of all the pollutants in wildfire smoke, fine particulate matter (PM2.5) poses the greatest risk to human health as these microscopic particles can be inhaled deep into the lungs, potentially causing irritation and inflammation. Sarah elaborates:
“Wildfire smoke can irritate your eyes, nose, throat, and lungs. It can also cause systemic inflammation that affects other areas of your body, like your heart. People with conditions such as asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and heart disease are most at risk.”
Most symptoms associated with inhaling wildfire smoke are relatively mild, and can be managed without medical attention. People experiencing more severe symptoms should seek prompt medical attention by calling HealthLink BC (8-1-1), or speaking with a health care provider. Severe symptoms include:
- Shortness of breath
- Severe cough
- Chest pain
- Heart palpitations
The best way to protect yourself from wildfire smoke is to reduce exposure and find cleaner air. Here are some tips to create cleaner air space at home:
- Use a portable air cleaner in one or more rooms. Portable air cleaners work best when run continuously with doors and windows closed.
- Whenever possible, use air conditioners, heat pumps, evaporative coolers, fans, and window shades to keep your cleaner air space comfortably cool on hot days. Overheating can cause serious health problems.
- If you have a forced-air system in your home, talk to your service provider about different filters and settings that can be used to reduce indoor smoke.
- Plan ahead for upcoming smoke events. Use the BC Asthma Prediction System, an interactive online map that forecasts concentrations of particulate matter and can tell you if there is an asthma-related health risk during wildfire smoke events.
- Avoid activities that create more indoor and outdoor air pollution, such as frying foods, sweeping and vacuuming, and using gas-powered appliances.
- Consider wearing a respirator or other type of face mask during time outdoors.
If you don't have access to cleaner air at home, you can also seek cleaner air in places such as malls, libraries or community centres.