What are the possible health risks following the York Memorial C.I. fire?
People were evacuated after two fires broke out at a Toronto high school on early Tuesday morning and Monday afternoon.
“It is [the authorities’] view that the smoke and the direction in which the smoke is going, mostly to the south, poses a potential hazard to people,” Toronto mayor John Tory told reporters Tuesday.
“It’s just safer for them not to be in their homes at this point in time until the authorities indicate that it’s safe again.”
Fire crews that attended the scene at York Memorial C.I. early Tuesday morning indicated that the fire was in a different location and of a different significance than the first fire, Toronto fire chief Matthew Pegg told reporters Tuesday.
“If there are people still at home in the areas where the fire department has been going door-to-door to ask them to leave their homes, I would hope that they would heed that advice,” Tory told reporters.
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Possible short-term health hazards
There can be a number of acute and long-term risks for people who are exposed to smoke from fires, according to Marc Jeschke, the medical director of Sunnybrook’s Ross Tilley Burn Centre and a senior scientist at the Sunnybrook Research Institute.
“Acutely, you can have something called an inhalation injury or carbon monoxide poisoning,” Jeschke said. “Carbon monoxide poisoning or cyanide poisoning can be actually toxic for your system.”
According to the Ontario College of Family Physicians, symptoms for carbon monoxide poisoning may include headache, fatigue, nausea or vertigo.
“If you have cyanide toxicity, you would be really sick,” Jeschke said. “You’re basically unconscious, you can’t breathe, your blood pressure’s really low.”
According to Jeschke, people with high cyanide toxicity would need to go to a hospital’s intensive care unit.
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Potential long-term health effects
When people inhale carbon monoxide, cyanide or other carcinogens, Jeschke added, long-term health effects can occur.
“You cannot properly perform your pulmonary functions, you can develop respiratory distress syndrome, you can have restrictive lung problems,” he said. “Not necessarily everybody is going to get that.”
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According to Jeschke, it’s impossible to determine at the time of the fire if or when one will develop problems later in life.
“You can’t quantify what they were exposed to nor what they inhaled, so it’s completely unknown what’s going to happen in the future,” he added.
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What can be done?
According to Jeschke, the damage that’s done to people’s health is determined based on the materials that get burned in a fire and if they’re toxic or not.
“In general in your periphery, if you have some exposure to smoke or some other stuff, it should not be significantly toxic, but you need to be sure that there’s nothing in there that’s burning or causing the toxicity,” Jeschke said.
If chemicals are burned, the pollution and toxins created from a fire can be distributed over large areas, he added.
“I really think you need to listen to the authorities if it’s safe or not safe and then do what they say and follow their advice,” Jeschke said.
If people are experiencing allergic reactions to smoke, like teary eyes or feeling sick, they should go to the emergency room and get checked out, Jeschke finished.
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— With files from Gabby Rodrigues
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