Cross Country Checkup·Ask Me Anything

Outdoor exercise and protecting kids amid wildfire smoke: Your questions answered

Dr. Christopher Carlsten spoke with Cross Country Checkup host Ian Hanomansing about the risks associated with wildfire smoke, and answered questions from callers about exercising when air quality is poor as well as how best to protect young children.

Pollution expert Dr. Christopher Carlsten answered callers' questions about the risks of poor air quality

Calgary Stampede visitors had to cope poor air quality as wildfire smoke blew into Calgary on July 18. Dr. Christopher Carlsten says pollution from wildfire smoke can have short- and long-term effects on health. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

As wildfires continue to burn, the smoke from the fires is wreaking havoc throughout the country.

With over 250 active fires in British Columbia as of Sunday, Alberta has felt the effects of the smoke last week. Meanwhile, most of Manitoba was under an air quality advisory.

While those living in the western half of Canada may be familiar with wildfires, smoke has reached southern Ontario, and as far east as New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, this summer.

"For those at particular risk, there's real concern with these high levels of air pollution from wildfires that [people with] certain cardiac respiratory conditions, in particular, could be triggered by these events," said Dr. Christopher Carlsten, head of respiratory medicine at the University of British Columbia.

Carlsten spoke with Cross Country Checkup host Ian Hanomansing about the risks associated with wildfire smoke, and answered questions from callers about exercising when air quality is poor and how best to protect young children.

'The concern is very real'

Carlsten, who studies the effects of air pollution, said there's reason to be concerned about wildfire smoke and its impact on our health.

Wildfire smoke is similar to traffic-related smoke, he said. Research suggests that traffic-related pollution is responsible for thousands of premature deaths annually, millions of new childhood asthma cases and can even alter DNA in dangerous ways.

A wildfire burns on a hill near Osoyoos, B.C., on July 21. Smoke from wildfires in several parts of the country has impacted regions as far east as Nova Scotia recently. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

For those with pre-existing health conditions, the effects are more immediate.

"There are plenty of studies from B.C. that show when these fires occur, that medication use increases, or in a smaller percentage of these individuals and groups, they need to seek medical attention more acutely in an emergency or urgent care centre," Carlsten said.

But Carlsten said that people shouldn't necessarily panic. 

Wildfire smoke is not a chronic, year-round problem in Canada. And though there may be short-term effects of smoke on healthy individuals, they can often be mitigated. 

"It's a fine line in terms of our level of concern, because the concern is very real," Carlsten said. "But on the other hand, we do have ways to control that risk and the risk can be moderated."

Can I exercise during smoky periods?

Calling from Virden, Man., Kevin Procyk asked whether it was safe for him to continue daily walks and bike rides in his community when smoke is present in the air.

Carlsten says that healthy individuals should be fine with moderate exercise, even in smoky conditions.

"Now, I'm not saying if you're healthy, just go out there and not worry about it," Carlsten said, noting that some may rely on exercise for their mental health, or cycling to get to work or pick up groceries.

But "for healthy individuals under limited periods of time — not necessarily day after day for months at a time, but for a day or two or a week when necessary — it's not something to be so worried about that you sort of lock yourself up at home."

However, those with heart and lung conditions, as well as older individuals, should be cautious about going out during periods of poor air quality. Carlsten suggests asking for help with certain tasks and reducing time outdoors.

Buildings in downtown Toronto appear grey against the skyline after smoke from wildfires in northwestern Ontario settled over the city last week. (CBC)

Keeping children safe from smoke & heat

Emma Bonnar in Muskoka, Ont., is the parent of a seven-month-old daughter and doesn't have air conditioning in their home. 

"I'm wondering what is more dangerous to her: the heat when I have to close up my house because her room would get up to like 30 degrees-plus, or the air pollution?" she asked.

Carlsten said Bonnar's situation is challenging, and a "double whammy" of sorts. Heat and smoke "do tend to compound each other because when you get warmer, you breathe more heavily, and get more particles deeper into your lungs." 

One approach is to install a system that both cools and filters the air. But given that can be complicated and costly, he argues it's easier to cool than it is to clean the air.

"Heat is a bit easier to address because ... there's a lot of very effective measures to cool," Carlsten said.

In the absence of an air conditioner, Carlsten says that a cool bath can help alleviate the effects of hot weather.

"Everyone has access to relatively cool water — cooler than your body temperature, certainly," he told Bonnar. 

"You can fill up a tub and sit there and your body temperature will come right down, and that problem is already taken care of simply."

Written by Jason Vermes. Segment produced by Ashley Fraser. This Q&A is edited for length and clarity.

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