B.C.’s chief provincial health officer says British Columbians should not expect any long-term health impacts from the 2018 wildfire season.
Dr. Bonnie Henry says there is a lot of “confusion” surrounding the impacts of the smoke, and wants to assure people there won’t be any major issues down the road.
“Despite the fact it has been going on for several weeks, we really do see this as a short-term exposure compared to the day in, day out exposures that others have,” said Henry. “So for the vast majority of people when the skies clear, these symptoms of irritation and shortness of breath are going to go away and most of us will be absolutely fine.”
The air quality in municipalities across British Columbia have been considered hazardous based on the World Air Quality Index. In Vanderhoof, a region close to the Shovel Lake fire, the air quality was measured at double the level considered hazardous to health.
WATCH: Video shows Vancouver covered in smoke, blocking out bridges and buildings as wildfires continue
Vancouver was ranked as the fifth-worst major city for air quality in the world on Wednesday. An air quality advisory from Environment Canada is still in effect for much of the province.
Henry says the smoky air makes it harder to get oxygen into the blood, and normally-healthy people can have symptoms including eye irritation, sore throats, running nose, cough and wheezy breathing. There will be some people who will feel long-term effects from the smoke if it irritates underlying conditions.
The province has also seen an increase in trips to the emergency room because of shortness of breath. Infants, pregnant women and those with underlying health conditions are being told it is recommended they stay inside.
“Even though it may smell smoky and it may not be, stay inside where the air is cleaner. It’s the best protection you can do right now,” said Dr. Henry. “Keep well-hydrated, it keeps you healthy as well.”
According to the app “Sh**t! I Smoke,” the air quality in Vancouver today is equivalent to smoking 9.5 cigarettes a day. But Henry says the smoke produced by a wildfire is different than cigarette smoke or smoke produced in cities known for heavy air pollution.
“Wildfire smoke is different from other air pollution. So we have seen comparisons to cities like Beijing and Delhi. But air pollution is caused by vehicle exhaust and industrial emissions and has other components to it that are also harmful to human health,” said Henry. “While wildfire smoke does certainly has health effects, it is not the same as ongoing exposure to long term pollution like we do in some of these cities.”
The B.C. government is well aware of the challenges people are having breathing. Premier John Horgan says the province is looking at support for those suffering from breathing problems.
“The impacts of fire season are being felt in our urban centres, even though you may be kilometres away from the fires,” said Horgan. “We are working on tools we can bring to bear with the minister of finance and the minister of health so we can bring forward respiratory assistance for people.”
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