How Albertans can maintain their health in wildfire smoke

Many parts of Alberta are suffering again Monday from poor air quality due to smoke from wildfires in B.C. and Saskatchewan — with experts warning people to avoid exercising outside and passing on other tips to stay healthy.

Who's at highest risk, how to read the air quality health index and what you can do to stay safe

Downtown Calgary on a clear day last week, left, and under a blanket of smoke on Monday, right. (Submitted by Mike MacLean)

Many parts of Alberta are suffering again Monday from poor air quality due to smoke from wildfires in B.C. and Saskatchewan — with experts warning people to avoid exercising outside and passing on other tips to stay healthy.

Smoke from wildfires started blowing into Alberta from B.C. mid-week last week and the entire province was put under a special air quality alert on the weekend.

By Monday morning, a wind change has meant most of the smoke in cities like Edmonton and Calgary was coming from other wildfires in northern Saskatchewan, according to Environment Canada.

The agency had also issued air quality statements for about 30 regions in Alberta, including cities like Calgary, Edmonton and Fort McMurray.

Wildfire smoke is causing poor air quality and reduced visibility in Edmonton. (Janet French/CBC)

"It's easier to count the number of areas in Alberta that are not under it," said Dave Phillips, a senior climatologist with Environment Canada. "It's almost provincewide."

Meanwhile, Calgary's air quality health index (AQHI) reached 10+ on Sunday — the highest and most dangerous tier that means "very high risk" — and was nine as of Monday morning.

Environment Canada said very high AQHI values were being reported through much of Alberta and were expected to remain high through mid-week in central and northern regions.

They're expected to drop a bit in southern Alberta with southeasterly winds on Monday.

Slight increase in hospital visits

Since Environment Canada issued an air quality alert for the Calgary region on July 13, emergency departments and urgent care centres in the Calgary Zone have seen a slight increase in visits related to respiratory concerns, Alberta Health Services said in a statement on Monday.

EMS also saw a slight increase in respiratory calls, AHS said.

Dr. Kerri Johansson, a lung specialist and assistant professor at the University of Calgary who also works at the South Health Campus, said wildfire smoke seems increasingly common during Alberta summers.

She emphasized the importance of understanding the air quality health index, who is at the highest risk, and how to mitigate that risk.

"Wildfire smoke is thought to be more toxic than air pollution," Johansson told the Calgary Eyeopener on Monday. "[And] this is something I seem to be talking about every summer now."

WATCH | An expert shares the latest on how wildfire smoke can affect your health:

What this expert knows about the long-term impacts of wildfire smoke

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Sarah Henderson, the scientific director for the B.C. Centre for Disease Control, shares the latest research and studies about how wildfire smoke can affect your health.

What is the air quality health index?

The air quality health index is a composite measure of different pollutants that are in the air, Johansson explained.

Those pollutants can include nitrogen dioxide, ground-level ozone, and particulate matter, which is composed of particles of liquids and solids including organic chemicals, soil, metal and dust particles.

The index also factors in the health risks that are associated with exposure for both the general population and at-risk populations such as young children, babies, pregnant women and the elderly.

Calgary reached an air quality health index of 10+ on Sunday, or 'very high risk,' which was downgraded to 9 on Monday. (Monty Kruger/CBC)

Those at the highest risk are people with underlying cardiopulmonary diseases, she said, including heart disease, asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, emphysema and pulmonary fibrosis.

"The risk from this type of air pollution exposure is different for different people," Johansson said.

"We're not going to see [advisories] like, 'Absolutely don't do anything.' But for the general population, at this level, consider modifying your behaviour."

Try not to exercise outside

For starters, Johansson advised Albertans to try not to exercise outside.

"The more you exercise, the deeper you're breathing, the more rapidly you're breathing, and the more your lungs are being exposed to all this stuff," Johansson said.

The Calgary Rowing Club is seeing ash on its normally clean boats after rowing in the Glenmore Reservoir these days. (Submitted by Brooklea Graham)

Limiting exposure to other irritants and additional risks is also a good idea.

"[It's] not a time to be burning stuff in the back yard, or maybe sucking back on a few cigarettes," Johansson said.

Stay where the air is cleanest, and maintain indoor air quality by investing in high-efficiency air filters and keeping doors and windows shut.

It's also important to double-check the air intake on the air conditioner in your house and car to make sure it isn't bringing polluted air into your home.

"Short, intermittent bursts of this [exposure] aren't the same as sort of living in a highly polluted area for the duration of your life, [but] it might impact your lungs developing," Johansson said.

"It's not good for anybody, and there will always be concerns for long-term damage."

Here is a look at Calgary's smoky skies from Monday morning, at left, and the same angle from last winter. (@pariaedalat/Instagram)

With files from the Calgary Eyeopener


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