For 53-year-old photographer Stephanie Harron, the past few weeks have felt like living in a fiery, smoky hell.
The air in her hometown of Castlegar, British Columbia, was thick with smoke as bushfires raged nearby. Her neighbor’s house could hardly be seen only 25 meters away. Her eyes are watery, her asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) makes even the simple act of breathing a challenge.
Instead of using the spray once or twice a week, she now uses it four to five times a day.
“The air, full of particles, makes me want to vomit,” she says. “The first thing you notice is the taste before the pungent smell,” says Aaron. “I’d compare it to living in an ashtray. Every breath without a respirator is like short gasses.” “[I’m] Almost afraid to take a deep breath knowing that it would lead to a cough and make it worse and more difficult.”
Aaron is not alone. With nearly 250 fires burning across the county, tens of thousands of people have been exposed to poor air quality, which is especially difficult for those with health issues. Another 200 wildfires broke out across the country.
Climate change is expected to exacerbate wildfires, with estimates anywhere from 74 to 118 percent increase in Canadian land scorched by 2100.
Watch | What is the health impact of wildfire smoke?
And while the dangers of smoke are among the biggest concerns, there are also less obvious health concerns like the impact on mental health and clean water to consider.
Questions about long-term effects
Scientists who examine air pollution – including pollution from wildfires – study different types of emissions, but among those the most common are particulate matter (PM), specifically PM 2.5.
PM 2.5 are fine particles measuring about 2.5 micrometers and smaller. Inhaling it can affect the lungs and heart, and is a serious concern for those with health problems such as asthma or heart and lung disease.
The immediate effects may be obvious, but doctors are also trying to better understand the long-term effect.
“Four out of the past five summers in British Columbia have had significant bushfire smoke events. And … we’re not really sure what the long-term health consequences for populations that are exposed this way, sort of season after season,” said Sarah Henderson, scientific director for environmental health. At the British Columbia Center for Disease Control. “There is a possibility that significant and significant exposure to wildfire smoke will affect the health of these individuals throughout their lives.”
And these particles don’t just mean those who live near fires. The smoke can travel far from its source, and sometimes even cross the globe.
“For major smoke events, you will see transcontinental smoke transmission,” said Jeff Iami, regional air health officer for Health Canada. For the fires of Fort Mac [in 2016]They smoked as far away as Ukraine so they could track the Fort McMurray fires.”
Here at home, on July 19, Canada’s Department of Environment and Climate Change issued air quality guidance for southern Ontario, including Toronto, as well as Ottawa as smoke from wildfires in northwestern Ontario blanketed the province. A week later, parts of Quebec, including Montreal, were placed under similar supervision.
anxious and irritable
Then there is the impact on mental health. Forest fires sometimes force people to evacuate their homes, causing high levels of stress. Those who live in areas where the air is thick with smoke may also be forced to stay indoors for extended periods of time. In addition, there may be other hidden costs, such as running around for asthma medication.
Dr. Courtney Howard, an emergency physician in Yellowknife and past president of the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment, participated in a study that interviewed 30 residents of Yellowknife, which is exposed to bushfires every year. In the study, they were asked what it felt like to live through an extended period of smoked air.
“What people told us was that they felt anxious and irritable,” she said. “They’ve been locked up, they’ve had cabin fever…a lot of comments about reduced physical activity. So, of course, what that means is that people are missing out on the treatment benefit that we know we get from being outside in nature, exercising.”
At one point, the Mayor of Yellowknife said, Howard opened an indoor space for exercise so people could be active in a well-ventilated area. It’s something you think officials may need to think about in the future with climate change.
Impact on the environment
The particles released into the air affect more than just physical health. These particles also land on trees, plants, and buildings and end up in the water.
Ash, sediment, and minerals not only flow into streams and rivers, but also downstream into lakes and reservoirs, which can affect drinking water and contribute to algal blooms.
The good news is that water filtration systems in Canada are often able to filter it. But the extra stress on the system means it can cost more to deal with the higher level of contaminants.
“The issue with fire and drinking water is not – and I must stress that – in general an issue of ‘Am I drinking something with some kind of toxic contaminant?'” says Monica Imelko, a professor at Civic University of Waterloo. and the Environmental Engineering Department. “It’s rather an issue: ‘If toxic pollutants get into the water, are you going to be able to have something that runs out of your tap and you can use it?’…when we have these upheavals in the landscape, it really drives our ability To do so in a cost effective manner. “
There are also impacts on ecosystems, says Uldis Silins, professor of forest hydrology at the University of Alberta. For example, when sediment and minerals flow into the water, it can upset the chemical balance in the lake.
“One of the things we’ve seen frequently is very large impacts on things like sediments,” Silens said. “Unlike other types of turbulence stresses we might think of, the range of those effects was not a 30 or 50 percent increase in sediment production, but rather hundreds of percents or thousands of percents, so orders of magnitude increase in those pollutants.”
And since humans depend on those ecosystems, there could be other consequences – such as affecting the fish in the lakes that are eaten.
“I don’t think it would be too bold to say we are in a climate emergency,” said Health Canada’s Iami. “Everyone should be aware that this is happening.” “The models may not be 100 percent accurate, but they will be accurate enough for this to be a concern for everyone.”