Reducing health risks from smoky air

Widespread wildfires wreak havoc with air quality

Health risks from breathing forest fire smoke are on the rise as the Air Quality Health Index (AQHI) peaked at a “high risk” Level 8 (out of 10) in Williams Lake on July 16, similar to the smoky (but unmonitored) air recently experienced in 100 Mile House.

Resident public health physician Dr. Lizette Elumir says watching AQHI reports during times of forest fires is a good practice, but anytime you are noticing symptoms it is time to take action.

“If you are starting to get things like a scratchy throat, or you’re coughing, or you have got chest pain, or you are having a hard time breathing – that is warning you whatever is in the air is starting to irritate your throat and your lungs.

“You really need to get into an area of clean air, so indoors would probably be your best bet.”

To further reduce your risk, indoor high-efficiency particulate air cleaners can also be helpful for some, she adds.

Elumir explains when air quality index shows a reading for PM2.5, this means the particles in the air are fine particles small enough to get deep into the lungs.

“You don’t want to be smoking or even vacuuming because those produce particles as well.”

Interior Health guidelines also suggest avoiding smoke-producing appliances, such as wood stoves and candles.

Some smoke particles are tiny enough to get through the lungs and are then absorbed into the bloodstream.

Elumir says it is a good idea for people to consult their physicians, as everyone’s health needs are different.

There is an increased risk of experiencing worse symptoms from smoky air if you have asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease [COPD], heart disease, diabetes or any other chronic health disease, she explains.

Children, seniors (even if healthy), pregnant women and people who are doing very active work or sports outside are also more at risk.

“Infants and young children for sure because they breathe faster and they breathe deeper, are more susceptible to symptoms.”

If it is hot, be sure to avoid excessive heat, use air-conditioning where possible and drink plenty of water to stay hydrated, she adds.

However, people who work outside might not have many choices, so having some knowledge about the risks is a good idea, Elumir adds.

“We are trying to tell people to be cautious, keep it in mind, be aware, and then as soon as you feel something ‘off’, just do something – take a break, go inside.”

Unfortunately, basic filter masks don’t help reduce such tiny particulate, she notes.

More information on reducing smoke-related health risks and on forest fire emergency preparedness is online at www.interiorhealth.ca/YourEnvironment/EmergencyPreparedness/Pages/Forest-Fires.aspx.