'Very, very hard to breathe': Experts call wildfires a 'major public health concern' for Canada
Chris Tanych woke up with a coughing fit in the early hours of Wednesday morning as a smoky haze from wildfires in Quebec and northeastern Ontario blanketed Ottawa for a third straight day.
Tanych, who has asthma, said matters only got worse for his health by the afternoon, when air quality in the capital city remained high risk under Environment Canada’s Air Quality Health Index (AQHI). Toronto’s air quality was also deemed high risk on Wednesday and ranked in the top five worst air quality and pollution city rankings around the world.
“It's like I'm a 50-year-old smoker, like I have to clear my throat constantly. I feel like I have a frog in my throat, I’m coughing up phlegm,” the 28-year-old told CTVNews.ca in a phone interview.
“It’s very, very hard to breathe outside. I go outside and after 10, 20 seconds, I start literally feeling like I'm about to cough my head out and I go into a violent cough.”
Tanych works as a landscape advisor, personal training specialist and a golf coach and said he’s having to take time off work because he can’t perform physically with the smoke lingering in his city, which he likened to campfire smoke. His mental health has also taken a hit.
“I’m anxious, depressed, gloomy,” Tanych said.
“I’m actually planning to go visit my mom in Gananoque for a few days until the smoke clears over — pun unintended.”
As forest fires rage across the country, experts are sounding the alarm over the physical and psychological impacts of the wildfires and saying that they pose a serious public health issue, which individuals and governments need to acknowledge and act upon.
“It’s definitely a major public health concern,” said Matthew Adams, an assistant professor in the department of geography, geomatics and environment at the University of Toronto Mississauga.
Raluca Radu, a registered nurse who teaches a course on the health impacts of climate change at the University of British Columbia, seconded that remark.
“Given the fact that the climate crisis is only getting worse, we do need to take into account wildfire smoke as a public health concern that we should have preparedness in place for, from year to year,” Radu told CTVNews.ca in a phone interview.
HEALTH IMPACTS OF WILDFIRES
The physical health impacts of wildfires vary in different regions, Adams said.
In areas like Toronto and Ottawa that are experiencing smoke from fires that are burning elsewhere, he said people may experience short-term symptoms like coughing, congestion, dry eyes, watery eyes and rapid heart rate increases, which usually happen the day of exposure up to the following three days.
People with asthma or other respiratory and heart diseases may feel those conditions flare up. In serious cases, they may also end up in the hospital.
In areas such as Western Canada and parts of Quebec, where there are persistent wildfires, Adams said residents are likely to experience those short-term symptoms in addition to possibly developing heart and respiratory diseases due to long-term smoke exposure.
A cyclist rides as smoke from wildfires in Ontario and Quebec obscures Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Tuesday, June 6, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean KilpatrickWildfires can also impact people’s mental health, Radu said, noting that ecological anxiety tends to instil fear in people when they look at the future threat of climate change.
Anxiety, depression, panic attacks, lack of sleep and not wanting to engage in activities are some of the things to look out for, she said.
Post-traumatic stress disorder may also present in people who have previously been in close proximity to wildfires or have had to evacuate their homes due to a fire.
WHO IS MOST VULNERABLE?
The elderly, young children, pregnant women, people experiencing homelessness, those with pre-existing health conditions and people who work outdoors are among the most vulnerable to the health impacts of wildfires.
“We know that the climate crisis is also an equity crisis, so for individuals in these categories who don't really have an option in terms of how they sustain themselves (and) their jobs expose them to these unfortunate conditions, we see those risks are exacerbated in these populations,” Radu explained.
Indigenous communities are also vulnerable in the face of wildfires, Radu said, as they tend to live near forested areas or wildland and rely heavily on the environment.
“They are so deeply connected to the land and so when you disrupt them from land-based activities, which is such a critical part of their livelihood, that will have significant mental health repercussions on those populations,” she added.
MITIGATING THE HEALTH IMPACTS OF WILDFIRES
In order to mitigate the health impacts of wildfires, experts say action is required from both the community and individual levels.
At the community level, Radu said governments need to ensure that emergency preparedness plans and public health alerts are in place and widely accessible so people know how to protect themselves when there is a wildfire and/or poor air quality where they live.
“There needs to be a stronger effort from these sources to ensure every group of people is reached,” Radu said.
As part of those emergency preparedness plans, she said opening recreation centres and facilities to the public during such extreme weather events could help people find relief and still look after their physical and mental health by exercising indoors and interacting with others.
Blair Feltmate, head of the Intact Centre on Climate Adaptation at the University of Waterloo, said the federal government should launch a national campaign on wildfire protection education.
“That would actually be at the very top of the list because we know people will act when given that guidance,” he said in a phone interview with CTVNews.ca.
In a statement Wednesday, which was also Clean Air Day, Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos said he is committed to working with partners to fight climate change and ensure Canada has the policies, programs and resources in place “to promote clean air and reduce air pollution across Canada.”
“The Government has taken action to protect Canadians from the adverse effects of air pollution through regulations on emissions, creating national air quality standards, and providing the Air Quality Health Index forecasts for communities across Canada,” Duclos said.
“I believe that by working together, we can make a real difference and ensure that future generations will be able to breathe clean, healthy air.”
In an emailed statement to CTVNews.ca, Health Canada said the Public Health Agency of Canada said it “regularly undertakes a range of activities to support Canada’s preparedness and response capacity on an ongoing basis,” including stockpiling of medical supplies, equipment, and pharmaceuticals for the National Emergency Strategic Stockpile.
Among other things, the federal department said it has also co-ordinated the delivery of supplies such as cots, blankets, ward boxes, and disposable sheets to Alberta to support the province’s wildfire response, and deployed air quality monitors to Nova Scotia, British Columbia and the Yukon to monitor indoor and outdoor quality impacted by wildfire smoke.
At the individual level, Radu recommended people get familiarized with the AQHI so they know when it’s safe to go outside and create a support network with their loved ones — especially people who are vulnerable — to know when to look out for one another in the face of a wildfire or poor air quality.
Wearing masks outside where there’s poor air quality is another protective measure people can take, she noted.
Adams, meanwhile, said people who are exposed to the short-term effects of wildfires should stay inside while air quality advisories are in place. As for people who live in wildfire-prone areas, he recommended purchasing an air purifier and making sure their furnace and air conditioning filters are cleaned regularly to reduce the amount of contaminants in their home.
To mitigate the psychological impacts of wildfires, Radu encouraged getting at least seven to eight hours of sleep a night, eating healthy, engaging in indoor physical activity as much as possible and staying in contact with friends and family.
Feltmate said it’s crucial that Canada adapts to the extreme weather risks that are being felt across the country — from extreme heat, to flooding, to wildfires.
“As bad as things are now, they are going to get worse going forward for sure. Climate change is irreversible — period. It's here to stay. We're not going backwards. And we better learn to adapt and we know we need to adapt rapidly,” he said.
CTVNews.ca Top Stories
A new survey found that 48 per cent of Canadians say they won’t be taking any specific action to recognize National Day for Truth and Reconciliation.
'Stories of resilience and survival': Indigenous-led tourism is one way to support communities in Canada
A growing number of businesses popping up across Canada are offering unique experiences that invite tourists to dive into the history, language and culture of Indigenous communities.
The federal Liberal government has made a lot of promises to Indigenous Peoples. But do those promises line up with what communities on the ground really want and need, or reflect their diversity?
Canada’s greenhouse gas emission up 2.3 per cent from last year due to oil and gas production, cold winter: report
New data from the Canadian Climate Institute shows that emissions from the oil and gas industry and buildings continued to climb in the previous year, undercutting Canada's overall emissions reduction progress.
Economists warn both Canada's economy and individual Canadians could suffer from impacts of a U.S. government shutdown, and that those impacts will deepen and broaden the longer it lasts.
A Scarborough family said they were shocked to get a notice from the City of Toronto that the artificial grass in their backyard, including a putting green, will have to be ripped out.
A new study finds walking an additional 3,000 steps per day can significantly reduce high blood pressure in older adults with hypertension.
Indian Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar said on Friday there was a 'climate of violence' and an 'atmosphere of intimidation' against Indian diplomats in Canada, where the presence of Sikh separatist groups has frustrated New Delhi.
The country's top soldier and outside experts say that finding almost $1 billion in savings in the Department of National Defence budget will affect the Armed Forces' capabilities, although the defence minister insisted Friday the budget is not being cut.
Statistics Canada has released new data about how the economy started off the third quarter, saying the country's GDP remains essentially unchanged. One economist says it highlights an ongoing trend of weak performance.
Newfoundland and Labrador Premier Andrew Furey made a solemn apology today to survivors of residential schools in southern Labrador.
A bail bondsman charged alongside former President Donald Trump and 17 others in the Georgia election interference case pleaded guilty to misdemeanor charges on Friday, becoming the first defendant to accept a plea deal with prosecutors.
When two Colorado gun control laws take effect Sunday, purchasing a firearm will require a three-day waiting period -- meant to curtail suicide attempts and shootings -- and gun violence victims will have an easier path toward filing lawsuits against the firearm industry.
A New Jersey man deliberately drove his SUV into a home and the offices of a municipal police department last week, authorities announced Friday.
A fire destroyed several waterfront buildings in Maine, including an art gallery with several paintings by Jamie Wyeth and an illustration by his grandfather, N.C. Wyeth., the building's owner said Friday.
Another Powerball drawing Saturday night, another chance at a jackpot that is inching toward $1 billion.
Tennessee and Kentucky can continue to ban gender-affirming care for young transgender people while legal challenges against those state laws proceed, federal appeals judges ruled.
The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission has set a threshold that determines which online streaming services will be subject to new rules arising from the Online Streaming Act, formerly known as Bill C-11.
America's top diplomat is again urging India and Canada to work together on bringing Hardeep Singh Nijjar's killers to justice -- and hopefully forestall a deepening of a serious geopolitical rift between two important allies.
Rising food prices have put 'an even bigger burden on families who were struggling before,' said the doctor, who is a member of Lax Kw'alaams First Nation on her father's side and Metis on her mother's side.
Some hospitals are bringing back masking - and the general public should consider it this fall too, experts say
Some hospitals are instigating stricter masking rules again amid an uptick in COVID-19 cases, and although we’ve probably seen the end of broad masking mandates, some experts say the general public should also be making more use of this tool in our arsenal of measures to fight illness.
For the first time, an international team of scientists have directly observed that antimatter – the mysterious counterpart to ordinary matter – free-falls under gravity, answering a question which has been the subject of endless speculation among the scientific community.
The man arrested Thursday in the killing of a Baltimore tech entrepreneur was released from prison last year after serving a shortened sentence for a 2013 rape and was suspected in another rape days before the slaying last week, police said.
The endangered red wolf can survive in the wild, but only with "significant additional management intervention," according to a long-awaited population viability analysis released Friday.
An arrest has been made in Tupac Shakur's killing. Here's what we know about the case and the rapper
An arrest has been made in Tupac Shakur's killing, here's what to know about one of the most infamous fatal shootings in hip-hop history.
In the last few years, China's government has promoted increasingly conservative social values, encouraging women to focus on raising children. It has cracked down on civil society movements and made laws to drive out foreign influence.
The NFL didn't need a popularity boost before Travis Kelce became enchanted with Taylor Swift. They'll gladly welcome millions of Swifties to watch this love story unfold.
The man accused of killing Baltimore tech entrepreneur Pava LaPere last week and committing a rape and arson days earlier will be held without bail pending trial in those cases, a judge ruled Friday.
Tech holding company Tiny Ltd. says it's buying a majority stake in movie review platform Letterboxd. Victoria, B.C.-based Tiny has not shared what it will pay for the 60 per cent stake it will take in the film diary and rating website.
It's been a long wait, but six Ukrainian students who arrived in Quebec City to start school last month are finally in a classroom. The teenagers have been waiting for the education ministry to issue their eligibility certificates so they can study in English as they requested.
Looking for baby name inspiration? A recent list of the top 20 baby names in 2022 may help with your search.
Many millions of Chinese tourists are expected to travel within their country, splurging on hotels, tours, attractions and meals in a boost to the economy during the 8-day autumn holiday period that began Friday.
The Toronto Blue Jays could clinch a playoff spot for the second straight season as soon as tonight.
The NBA suspended former San Antonio Spurs guard Joshua Primo on Friday for four games without pay for conduct detrimental to the league.
Unifor has set a deadline for its contract talks with General Motors for 11:59 p.m. on Oct. 9.
This week the government of Canada issued recalls and safety alerts for a series of vehicle components and consumer products. With dangers ranging from short circuit fire risks to electric shock hazards, here are some recalls the country has seen this week.
Hyundai, Kia recall over 600,000 cars in Canada, drivers told to park away from buildings due to fire risk
Hyundai and Kia have issued a recall for several vehicle models and are urging drivers to park away from buildings due to the risk that the issue could start a fire.