As wildfires continue to burn in the province, a Halifax-based respirologist is advising Nova Scotians to stay inside whenever possible and to take steps to help protect their lung health.
A Government of Canada resource page notes that the dense smoke produced by wildfires can be a major source of toxic air pollutants.
“This pollution contains fine particles (that are not visible to the human eye) that penetrate deep into our lungs and bloodstream, sometimes leading to serious health effects,” it notes.
“During heavy smoke conditions, all Canadians are at risk regardless of their age of health.”
The American Lung Association outlines how particle pollution — one of many pollutants found in wildfire smoke — triggers asthma attacks, heart attacks, and strokes, and can also kill people. The mix of tiny solid and liquid particles suspended in air are so small “that they enter and lodge deep in the lungs.”
“Studies of children in California found that children who breathed the smoky air during wildfires had more coughing, wheezing, bronchitis, colds, and were more likely to have to go to the doctor or to the hospital for respiratory causes, especially from asthma,” the association says.
So, just how concerned should Nova Scotians be about the wildfire smoke and its impact on their health, and how can they minimize the risk? The Halifax Examiner asked Dr. Meredith Chiasson these and other related questions.
Chiasson, a respirologist who sub-specializes in the care of patients with cystic fibrosis and pre and post lung transplantation, is also an associate professor of medicine at Dalhousie University.
This is our conversation.
Halifax Examiner (HE): Can you highlight some of the health concerns faced by those living or working in areas impacted by wildfire smoke?
Dr. Meredith Chiasson (MC): Symptoms can range from mild — sore eyes, cough, runny nose — to more significant, (including) worsening of underlying lung or heart conditions. Carbon monoxide exposure can result in headaches, nausea, dizziness, and death if exposure is significant. There are also concerns that there can be effects on the baby for pregnant women.
In general it is best to stay inside with windows and doors closed to minimize exposure.
HE: Who is most at risk in terms of being impacted by wildfire smoke?
MC: Young, elderly, those with underlying health conditions — heart and lung in particular — and pregnant women are the most vulnerable.
But those who consider themselves healthy are not invincible. It is best to minimize exposure. Stay indoors with windows and doors closed.
HE: How exactly does wildfire smoke affect lung health?
MC: Particles in the smoke are small. They can get down into the lower parts of your lung and cause inflammation, which can lead to exacerbations of underlying lung and heart conditions.
HE: How much of a concern is particle pollution from wildfires?
MC: Very concerning, and the effects can be far reaching. The particles can travel long distances with wind, jet stream etc. We had smoke in Nova Scotia last week from the Alberta fires that were carried by the jet stream. Be vigilant, watch the news, Twitter etc. Stay informed and stay safe.
HE: What are some of the things to watch for/consider pertaining to lung health if A) you’re a healthy person and B) if you’re caring for a child or older adults and/or those with pre-existing conditions?
MC: If you are a healthy person you can still be affected by smoke, even if (it’s) just sore eyes, cough. Don’t feel that it is safe to be outdoors for a prolonged period just because you are healthy.
Please do not exercise outdoors, especially if you can smell smoke. Protect your lungs, they are fragile and easily damaged, and the damage can be permanent.
If you are caring for someone who is vulnerable, keep them inside with windows and doors closed. If they exhibit symptoms that are concerning (shortness of breath, respiratory distress) consider calling 811 or bring them to the hospital to be assessed.
HE: How can people mitigate any health risks associated with wildfire smoke? What should they be doing both inside their homes and when they are outside?
MC: Stay indoors as much as possible with windows and doors closed. You can use a fan or air conditioner if it is hot inside, but keep windows closed. If you need to be outside for prolonged periods then you should wear a respirator — not just a cloth mask or surgical mask.
HE: Anything else you believe is important to add?
MC: Stay indoors, stay safe. Consider packing a go-bag as circumstances may worsen over the next few days with the hot dry conditions. And please follow the rules and do not burn, be careful where you drop your cigarette butt/match, stay out of wooded areas. Let’s help our first responders get on top of the fires and not add to their burden.
Click here to visit our Nova Scotia wildfires resource page.