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Health Professionals Point to Cumulative Impacts of Wildfire Smoke

Experts who attended a wildfire workshop hosted by the British Columbia Lung Association last week in Vancouver are sounding the alarm about the health threats posed by wildfire smoke.

The warning is a “timely” one, writes National Observer, given the extremity of B.C.’s wildfire season two years running. “Smoke from forest fires last year reached Atlantic Canada, and even as far away as Ireland,” the paper notes.

And that smoke is not to be trifled with, said Prof. Mike Flannigan of the University of Alberta Department of Renewable Resources. It’s a “chemical soup” of toxins, including mercury, carbon monoxide, and fine particulates that can produce “all kinds of problems” if they accumulate in lung tissue.

Just how pervasive these problems may be remains uncertain, said Sarah Henderson, a senior environmental health scientist at the British Columbia Centre for Disease Control.

While existing data confirms that chronic lung diseases are common among populations in cities where the pollution is extreme and never abates, Henderson noted, it’s not yet clear how things will play out in B.C., where air quality is generally “extreme good” outside the fire season.

“If we have a season like 2017 and 2018, year after year for the next 20 years, we probably will have a health impact on the population, but we don’t know what that will be yet,” she told Observer.

Flannigan is crystal clear about why Canada is seeing more, and more intense, wildfires, and longer fire seasons. “In Canada, our area burned has doubled since the 1970s. And my colleagues and I attribute this to—I can’t be any clearer—human-caused climate change,” he said.

Without climate change spooling up, a third bad fire season in a row “would have been unlikely,” he added. But now, “it’s entirely possible.”