'Not good for anybody': Southern Alberta air quality remains 'very high risk' to health

Smoke pouring in from nearby British Columbia continues to deteriorate the air quality in Alberta.

Environment Canada predicts smoke from B.C. wildfires will continue to blanket region

A Calgary Zoo employee wears a mask over his mouth and nose to cope with heavy wildfire smoke on Wednesday. Poor air quality continues on Thursday. (Justin Pennell/CBC)

Smoke pouring in from nearby British Columbia continues to deteriorate the air quality in Alberta.

A cloud of wildfire smoke settled on Calgary early Wednesday and continues to blanket the city. Thursday morning, the haze looked like fog and made the sun red in the sky.

For the second day, Environment Canada's air quality health index sits at 10+ for Calgary, which is considered very high risk. That index is predicted to remain at high risk until Friday.

Red Deer and Airdrie are also rated at very high risk. Lethbridge and Medicine Hat are recorded as high risk with a rating of eight and seven, respectfully.

An air quality warning remains in effect across much of Alberta.

"It's certainly not good for anybody," lung specialist Dr. Kerri Johannson told the Calgary Eyeopener.

The sky was obscured by smoke Thursday. Air quality is considered to be a very high risk to health, according to Environment Canada. (Justin Pennell/CBC)

In nearby British Columbia, the province declared a state of emergency as at least 566 fires were burning this week. More than 3,000 people were under evacuation order, and a further 18,720 were on evacuation alert.

Environment and Climate Change Canada offers a map online that shows where wildfire smoke is predicted to drift.

Watch where the smoke is expected to flow over 48 hours:

Watch an animated smoke map from Environment Canada

5 years ago
Duration 0:24
Smoke from more than 500 B.C. wildfires is blowing east into Alberta.

"You can really, really smell the smoke," said Olivia Goloski, who was out walking to a car. "If I had asthma, this would be really awful. I feel bad for the people who do have asthma or respiratory conditions."

With such poor air quality, the federal weather authority is warning those most at risk include children, seniors and people with cardiovascular or respiratory illness. They're encouraged to avoid strenuous outdoor activities entirely. 

Infants in particular should be protected, Johanson said, and pregnant women should be careful to avoid exposure, as well.

Calgary woke up to a smokey skyline on Thursday. (Justin Pennell/CBC)

For the general public, air pollution at this level causes "localized inflammatory response to the lungs as well as systemic inflammatory response," she said. This can produce symptoms such as throat irritation and coughing, as well as fatigue.

Similar to smoking

The potential for long-term damage to a healthy person isn't clear, she said, but the pollution is currently bad enough that everyone should try to avoid exposure as much as possible.

"Smoking a pack of cigarettes a day for 30 years is certainly going to have a much more negative impact," said Johannson, who is an assistant professor at the University of Calgary's department of medicine.

"But the localized effects that it's having on your lungs would be similar to smoking any kind of particulate and toxic noxious substance. So whether it's cigarettes or vaping, this would probably be somewhat similar."

Some people in Calgary wore masks Wednesday to avoid breathing in particles in the smoke that's covering the city. The smoke is expected to stay through Friday. (Justin Pennell/CBC)

Johannson recommends that Albertans:

  • Stay indoors in cool places with ventilated air.
  • Keep windows and door closed.
  • Use air filters if available and turn off air conditioning that pumps air in from outdoors.
  • In your vehicles, recirculate air rather than drawing polluted air in from outside.
  • If you're training or need to exercise, do so inside in a fitness facility with filtered air.

"People just have to listen to their bodies," she said.

Health Canada also offers a series of pages about air quality and protecting your health.

'Get creative inside'

Veterinarian Dr. Wendy McClelland asks that pet owners watch their critters' health, as well. 

"When it's this 10+ out with the air quality, I would minimize those walks. Get creative inside," she said. "There's lots of games you can look up on YouTube. Teach your dog some new tricks."

If your pet has lung or heart disease, going for short walks in the early morning or late night can help avoid heat stress, but the air quality will be equally damaging, she said.

She recommends getting an air filtration system in your house, and watching any breeds that naturally struggle to breathe, like bulldogs.

Summer camps are also modifying activities. The University of Calgary cycling camp, for example, is bringing kids inside to learn about bike maintenance.

"We do have some Plan Bs in place," youth program manager Logan Jones said. "They're not quite as much fun as playing outdoors, per se, but we try to turn it into a bit of an opportunity."

The YMCA of Calgary cancelled its Kids in Motion food bank drive Thursday, instead asking donors to drop off food at its branches or local grocery stores.

With files from Tahirih Foroozan and the Calgary Eyeopener.