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Breathing easy: How to avoid the long-term health consequences of B.C. wildfire smoke

WATCH: Heavy wildfire smoke drifts into Prince George causing dark skies

With the thick blanket of wildfire smoke covering B.C. showing no sign of clearing out, many people have begun to worry about the long-term health impacts of the haze.

The thick soup of particles is of immediate concern to children, seniors, and people with respiratory conditions such as asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder (COPD).

But Dr. Don Sin, head of respiratory medicine at St. Paul’s Hospital, said that for about one in 10 people, breathing in the smoke could be bad news in the long run.

READ MORE: Wildfire smoke is so thick in Prince George, it looks like night after the sun has risen

“We know that from studies from the past that certain individuals, maybe 10 per cent or so, will have long-term consequences from breathing in this bad air,” Sin told Global News.

“You can develop asthma or COPD or heart disease or stroke from this kind of event.”

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Sin said the problem is it’s hard to say who will be susceptible to the long-term damage. Instead, he said people who are exposed should keep an eye on symptoms in the years to come, and see a doctor if they’re concerned.

WATCH: BC1 Afternoon Weather Forecast: Aug 17

BC1 Afternoon Weather Forecast: Aug 17
BC1 Afternoon Weather Forecast: Aug 17

The best solution? Avoid exposure, and stay indoors as much as possible, he said.

“We are what we breathe, so air quality makes a tremendous impact on the health of British Columbians.”

READ MORE: Wildfire smoke is so thick in Prince George, it looks like night after the sun has risen

Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said while the temptation to evacuate an area such as Prince George, Williams Lake, Quesnel or Castlegar — where the air health index was at “very high risk” on Friday — might be strong, officials do not recommend it.

She said evacuations themselves can be stressful, and there is no guarantee that evacuees will find themselves in an area with air quality that’s any better.

She echoed Sin, saying reducing exposure is the key.

“If you have a portable air filter, particularly with HEPA filtration, then you can create a room where the air is clean,” she said.

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“If that’s not available… health authorities have been working with communities to help set up areas where there can be clean air and people can go there for respite.”

READ MORE: ‘No major rain in sight’: B.C. not expecting any break in fire fight

Henry added that environments such as libraries, community centres and shopping malls also have cooler, filtered air.

For people who just can’t avoid exposure to the smoke, Evelina Bednarek with Western Safety said there are options, though they’re not always cheap.

She said people should avoid surgical masks, which do “absolutely nothing.”

WATCH: Wildfire smoke darkens Prince George sky

Wild fire smoke darkens Prince George sky
Wild fire smoke darkens Prince George sky

At the affordable end of the range, Bednarek said people can look for disposable industrial masks that are rated N-95.

“[That] means it protects you from 95 per cent of particulates,” she said.

A pack of 10 runs between $35 and $40, she said.

READ MORE: Is it safe to look at the sun when it’s obscured by smoke?

For a little more — about $40 for a unit without filter cartridges — you can buy a mask that will protect you from 100 per cent of particulate.

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“You basically have the respirator with different types of filters and cartridges. So for smoke, we recommend HEPA filters, P-100, that you can attach to the respirator.”

Bednarek said masks of both types should be available at hardware stores, but that it’s essential that consumers check that they are properly HEPA or N-95 rated.