Thunder Bay

Longer-burning, larger forest fires raise smoke exposure health concerns, new report says

With forest fires burning longer and larger due to climate change, more research is needed to understand the long-term health effects of prolonged exposure to smoke, a new international report concludes.

Wildfires in Canada, Brazil, Australia examined by Global Climate and Health Alliance

More research is needed to fully understand the long-term health effects of exposure to smoke from forest fires, recommends a new report that examined wildfires in Canada, Brazil, and Australia. (Ontario Forest Fires/Twitter)

With forest fires burning longer and larger due to climate change, more research is needed to understand the long-term health effects of prolonged exposure to smoke, a new global report concludes.

"Forest Fire Smoke Driving Increased Health Risks from Air Pollution Worldwide" was released in June by the Global Climate and Health Alliance.

"A first step towards solving a problem is understanding it," said Jeni Miller, executive director of the alliance of non-governmental organizations, professional organizations, and health and environment alliances.

"There does need to be more research done. We don't know enough about the exposures that are happening, the health consequences of those exposures, how health systems themselves are affected when facing fire conditions, smoke conditions.

"We need more more research just to to understand the problem," she said. "We also need better preparation."

Miller said preparation of the report included examining wildfires in Canada, Brazil, and Australia.

Repeated and long exposure a concern

In recent years, wildfires are more frequent, larger and burning longer due to climate change.

"What this means for people is that, whereas previously there might be a fire and the immediate impacts are the most concerning because people have to evacuate, now we're seeing people repeatedly exposed and exposed for long periods of time, often to smoke from wildfires.

"It is not something that we've seen before," she said. "That's really what what kind of sparked our interest, raised our concern.

Wildfire smoke has many of the same components as other types of air pollution, [and] the impacts of air pollution on health are well known.- Jeni Miller, Global Climate and Health Alliance

"Wildfire smoke has many of the same components as other types of air pollution, [and] the impacts of air pollution on health are well known. The air pollution particles, small, small particulate matter dives deep into the system, goes across the blood brain barrier and affects people's cognitive well-being."

That's leading to respiratory issues and can also have an impact on cardiovascular health, pregnancy and people with diabetes, Miller said. But, she added, research on the long-term health effects of wildfire smoke has been limited, although there's been some research.

Wildfire smoke can travel great distances, she said. 

"It can travel literally thousands of miles," Miller said. "There's been smoke from North America that showed up in Europe. That's the kind of movement it can have."

Much of northwestern Ontario, including Thunder Bay, was the subject of air quality statements issued by Environment Canada on the weekend, due to smoke from the dozens of active forest fires drifting across the region.

In addition, the province's Aviation, Forest Fire and Emergency Services (AFFES) agency said more fires have been reported in Ontario this year than average.

As of Wednesday, the 2021 forest fire season has seen 530 confirmed forest fires. The 10-year average for the same time period is 358 fires; in 2020, 331 fires were reported in the same time period.

As of this time last year, 5,002 hectares had been burned. An AFFES spokesperson said, however, the 2020 fire season started slowly, with most of the larger fires reported later in the summer.

So far in 2021, 100,606 hectares have been burned, more in line with the 10-year-average of 111,875 hectares burned to date.

Miller said climate change is having an effect on fire intensity. Higher temperatures lead to drier conditions, which in turn can more easily get ignited by, for example, lightning strikes.

"We're going to continue seeing these fires," she said. "They're actually probably going to get worse. It's anticipated that wildfires in Canada will increase by 75 percent between now and 2100. So we do have to deal with the fact of fires and the smoke exposure from those fires."

Community preparation, help recommended

In addition to more research on the health effects of smoke, the report's recommendations include better community preparation and ensuring people forced out of their areas to due to a fire can get help like asthma medication, said Miller.

"Current public health guidance is premised on much shorter fires," she said. "The fire happens, the smoke exposure is a few days, and that's what we're prepared for," said Miller.

"We need to have those guidelines in place, that preparation in place, community understanding, those preparations that they need to take ... keeping in mind that they may be exposed for a much longer period of time."

She said countries must also do more to address climate change.

"We need countries incorporating health into their climate policies, and taking the significant climate action that's required to limit global warming, so that we're not just continuing to exacerbate this problem. Canada has a real opportunity here, because it has not yet released its updated commitments under the Paris agreement.

"There's an opportunity there to build into that climate commitment the level of emissions reductions that will limit warming to the targets set out by science, and set out by the Paris agreement," she said. "And that really embeds health across the plans and policies for responding to climate change."