The study analyzed data from 218 RCMP members who were deployed to Fort McMurray during the devastating 2016 wildfire. The data showed that their airway function was compromised in the first three months after deployment.
The study found RCMP officers were exposed to “an exceptionally high level of wildfire-related air pollutants” over a short period of time. The university said the small airways in their lungs underwent structural changes after they were deployed, potentially increasing the risk for respiratory diseases in the future.
The results also suggest that short-term exposure to air pollutants may cause changes in the distal parts of the lungs, which researchers say need to be detected at an early stage.
“We cannot tell from our study whether it’s long-lasting damage, but we do know from other studies that if people are exposed to high levels of particulate matter in the air, they are more likely to suffer from long-lasting damage to the lungs,” said study author Paige Lacy, a professor of medicine at the University of Alberta and former director of research for the Alberta Respiratory Centre.
The wildfire dubbed “the beast” ripped through Fort McMurray and surrounding areas in northern Alberta in May 2016, forcing more than 60,000 people from their homes.
More than 2,500 homes were destroyed. More than 60,000 insurance claims were made at a cost of about $3.6 billion, according to the Insurance Bureau of Canada.
The fire swept through nearly 6,000 square kilometres of boreal forest in northern Alberta.
RCMP officers were deployed to help evacuate the area and secure the community.
The lung-function data was gathered as part of a larger study being conducted by Synergy Respiratory and Cardiac Care that is looking at the health of RCMP officers dispatched to the Fort McMurray wildfire.
According to the researchers, the subtle differences in lung function that were found were not measurable using traditional lung-function tests, and could only be observed through the use of more highly sensitive instruments.
Researchers say the study has showcased that first responders need to be better prepared for situations like this in the future.
“There was very little time for people to respond in terms of making sure that everyone was safely fitted with personal protection equipment,” Lacy said. “What we found was that there was variable use of personal protection equipment while they were deployed.”
A paper released last summer by a group of forest and environmental experts from British Columbia and the United States suggested western Canada must urgently address the threats posed by highly destructive wildfires.
The experts predict devastating wildfires like those in B.C. last summer will be “commonplace” by 2050.
“Wildfires are going to become the norm for us, unfortunately,” said Subhabrata Moitra, an author of the U of A study.
“We saw that this summer, we saw that in previous summers. They are increasing in frequency and they’re increasing in intensity.
“We can try to do better forest management, but if we can’t prevent the wildfires from happening, then at least we can ensure first responders going in have properly fitted personal protection equipment. These people are going to go in repeatedly over the years and every time they are exposed, they’re increasing that risk of long-lasting damage to the lungs.”
Of the 218 participants, the U of A said 71 per cent were men with a mean age of 38. The university said 81 per cent of participants were never smokers.