March 14, 2017 1:28 pm
Updated: March 14, 2017 9:10 pm

Federal grant funds research on how Fort McMurray wildfire affected first responders’ health

WATCH ABOVE: In Tuesday's edition of Health Matters, Su-Ling Goh looks at funding announcements for studies looking at the health impact of the Fort McMurray wildfire and also explores how people with disabilities are appearing in more advertising these days.

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A $500,000 federal grant will fund research looking at how the Fort McMurray wildfire affected first responders’ health – both mental and physical.

The two-year Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) grant will support the work of University of Alberta epidemiologist Nicole Cherry.

READ MORE: Fort McMurray wildfire’s effect on firefighters’ health being studied 

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Cherry and her team started gathering information from firefighters as they came back from fighting the blaze. They took blood, urine and breath samples of firefighters as they return from northeastern Alberta in a mobile laboratory set up in Sherwood Park, east of Edmonton. They used a respiratory testing unit to measure the impact the fire, smoke and ash had on their respiratory system.

Cherry’s team tested more than 350 firefighters in the weeks that followed.

“During the first few days, it was clear that fighting that fire was very stressful,” Cherry said. “They weren’t getting any sleep, they were exhausted and often complained of breathing problems.

“The firefighters from Fort McMurray itself were often seeing their homes and the homes of people they know burn down. It was a very stressful experience.”

Her study will aim to contact every Alberta-based firefighter deployed to the blaze, including structural and wildland firefighters employed by Alberta Agriculture and Forestry.

READ MORE: Fort McMurray wildfire will shorten lives of firefighters: union 

The team will also look at mitigating factors, like the type of masks firefighters wore and how long they were wearing them for.

“We will be comparing with a cohort of people who were equally healthy before the fire who weren’t at the fire.

“Of the people who went to the fire, we want to know if they have any particular clusters of ill health that we didn’t see in comparison groups. Then, we’ll follow up every couple of years looking at mental health.”

READ MORE: ‘I love this place’: Fort McMurray firefighter who lost home in wildfire plans to rebuild 

Cherry’s team will look at the support systems in place in the roughly 50 detachments across Alberta that sent members to fight the fire.

“If one force seems to have something that is particularly good, we can recommend it to everybody else.”

READ MORE: ‘These guys are working around the clock’: Alberta firefighters share what it’s like in Fort McMurray

A total of 3,500 firefighters were involved in battling the Fort McMurray wildfires.

Cherry’s study is one of seven being funded through a $3.4-million partnership between the CIHR, Alberta government and the Canadian Red Cross. Five of the studies are based at the University of Alberta:

  • Peter Silverstone, Department of Psychiatry: The health effects of the Alberta wildfire and evacuation: Pediatric resiliency
  • Chris Le, Department of Laboratory Medicine and Pathology: Chemical contaminants in traditional foods from Fort McKay and Fort Chipewyan: Before and after the wildfires
  • David Olson, Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology: Intervention to improve perinatal outcomes following the 2016 Alberta wildfires: Administration, effectiveness and community implementation
  • Stephanie Montesanti, School of Public Health: Examining the impacts of wildfires on the health and well-being of indigenous peoples and communities in the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo

Dr. Jeremy Beach, left, tests the lung function of firefighter captain Kelly Lehr with a spirometer at a fire hall in Sherwood Park, Alta., on Wednesday, May 18, 2016. University of Alberta researcher Nicola Cherry set up a mobile lab to test firefighters for breathing problems after returning from Fort McMurray.

THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson

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