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Alberta wildfires: Experts address long-term mental, physical impacts of smoke

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Summer in Alberta: another day, another smoke-filled sky.

A shift in wind direction pushed smoke from the wildfires in northern Alberta — near High Level and Fort Chipewyan — and the Northwest Territories south into central and southern Alberta.

“The bulk of the ongoing wildfire activity in our region is in the northern extreme of the province,” said Justin Shelley, a meteorologist with Environment and Climate Change Canada.

He said there’s been quite a bit of fire activity and the wind shift transported the smoke south.

“It’s widespread across the province as of today,” Shelley said Friday.

He said wind forecasts are indicating the smoke will hang around for the weekend — at least until Sunday night, when a low-pressure system could bring in some rain.

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“It won’t likely be much improved over the next coming days, unfortunately.”

Click to play video: ''Unsafe to be outdoors': Wildfire smoke sparks air quality alerts for millions in Canada, US'

‘Unsafe to be outdoors’: Wildfire smoke sparks air quality alerts for millions in Canada, US

As of Friday morning, the air quality index in Edmonton was a Level 8, expected to fall to a 7 by Saturday. In Calgary, it was a Level 4, expected to rise to a 7 by Saturday.

The worst regions were Cold Lake and Fort McMurray, where the air quality was at a Level 10+ (very high risk) Friday morning.

A special air quality statement covered the entire province. Environment Canada issued the alert because “smoke is causing poor air quality and reduced visibility. Air quality and reduced visibility due to wildfire smoke can fluctuate over short distances and can vary considerably from hour to hour,” the agency said.

Wildfire smoke in Calgary at the Stampede on Friday, July 14, 2023.

Global News

The City of Edmonton activated its extreme weather response for poor air quality. It’s set to remain in place until July 15 at 8 am but could be extended.

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The response is activated when the air quality is at Level 7 or higher for two days in a row and often coincides with an Environment Canada Special Air Quality Statement.

The status means city facilities such as rec centers, pools and libraries will be open to anyone needing relief from the smoke. N95 masks will also be available at some agency partners.

Click to play video: 'Canada wildfires trigger air quality warnings in US as smoke reaches Europe'

Canada wildfires trigger air quality warnings in US as smoke reaches Europe

There are 122 wildfires burning across Alberta, burning a record-breaking 1.6 million hectares.

As of Friday, 17 were listed as out of control.

The BC Wildfire Service noted there are 363 active wildfires in that province.

BC also provides a smoke forecast online.

The unit of measure is “micrograms of particulate matter 2.5 per cubic meter (µg/m³)” at ground level. “PM2.5 is fine inhalable particles that are 2.5 micrometers and smaller,” noted the BC Wildfire Service, and “poses the highest risk to health from smoke.”

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Smoke forecast for Friday, July 14, 2023, from BC Wildfire Service.

Courtesy: BC Wildfire Service

Smoke affects mental health

Summers filled with wildfire smoke can chip away at our psychological wellbeing.

“There’s definitely a discouragement of summer plans being delayed or being shut down because the air quality is bad,” said Dr. Angela Grace, a registered psychologist.

“There’s a worry for our health, there’s a concern for not being able to do what we want to do, and then, in speaking to some people, there’s a real and true concern for our environment.”

For those experiencing climate anxiety, Grace suggests acting on things you can control: become an environmental advocate, or take small actions to improve the environment in your immediate home, work and sphere of influence.

“There are things you can do by speaking out and by having knowledge.”

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On a day-to-day level, she recommends having a Plan B for social events and activities.

“Have your Plan A for when the air quality is great,” Grace said. “I was planning on going camping this weekend but it’s not going to happen because air quality and health come first.

“How can you be adaptable and change your plans?

“We have to think about: OK, those plans changed. How can we do something indoors that is maybe not equally as enjoyable but is calming to our nervous system?

“If you can’t go outside, connect with people and you’ll get the boost of oxytocin and good endorphins,” she added.

Click to play video: 'How Canada's smoky summer will impact physical, mental health'

How Canada’s smoky summer will impact physical, mental health

Smoke affects physical health

As wildfire smoke becomes more common, it starts to become more than just one-time exposure, said Anne Hicks, an associate professor of pediatric respirology.

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“We can’t breathe this stuff on a regular basis,” he said.

“Think about smoke like any other chemical exposure. It’s made up of particulate matter and you can break that down into big stuff you can see and then smaller and smaller pieces,” she explained.

“Some of it will get up your nose and into your airways and make your throat sore and your eyes might sting and itch. Those are about 10 microns, or PM10 so really little… Once you get smaller, it can go down into the depths of your lungs where it causes inflammation and damage to the lungs.

“The very fine particulate matter actually gets absorbed into your bloodstream and it can have impacts on your brain.”

Hicks said neither short-nor long-term exposure to wildfire smoke is good.

“In the short term, you might have a cough, you might feel mucus-y … When that builds up over time, day after day, there’s actually what we consider to be safe limits for a one-time exposure for a couple hours and then safe limits for day-to-day exposure.

“When we start to smoke over a period of weeks or even months, the day-to-day safe exposure limit is very low. The World Health Organization sets that.”

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Click to play video: 'Concerns raised about the impact of wildfire smoke in Edmonton'

Concerns were raised about the impact of wildfire smoke in Edmonton

Personally, Hicks checks the air quality health index and makes decisions based on the level. On Friday, for example, she wore an N95 mask when she walked her dog outside, which she says will filter out about 85 per cent of the particulates that cause lung damage.

“When you’re in that orange or red zone, where it’s considered dangerous, nobody should be exercising outdoors and nobody should be working outdoors. You should try to stay inside and out of it as much as possible.

“When you’re in that yellow zone, infants and young children, pregnant people, and people with heart, lung or other diseases should be very cautious. They may limit their exercise.”

When the air quality is poor, Hicks suggests keeping your doors and windows closed and filtering your air using things like HEPA or HVAC systems. She worries for those who can’t escape the air.

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“People like outdoor workers and people who are housing insecure … where do you go to get away from the smoke?”

Click to play video: ''My throat's burning': Canada's wildfires put millions under air quality advisories'

‘My throat’s burning’: Canada’s wildfires put millions under air quality advisories