Canada is in flames — here's how to protect yourself from wildfire smoke

Jun 8 2023, 3:14 pm

Canada is in flames.

With hundreds of fires burning across the country, Canadians in major cities are seeing and breathing the effects of wildfire smoke.

Toronto had the third-worst air quality in the world on Wednesday, covered in an apocalyptic haze from smoke blowing from active fires in northern Ontario and Quebec. And it’s only expected to get worse with possible wildfire ash forecasted for today.

BC is experiencing one of its biggest wildfires in history, causing Metro Vancouver to issue an air quality advisory as smog slinks into the city.


Fire hotspots across Canada from Wednesday, June 7 (Natural Resources Canada).

Even though things might be feeling like this right now:

KC Green

There are ways to protect yourself from the dangers of wildfire smoke.

Daily Hive spoke with Dr. Chris Carlsten, professor of medicine and respirologist at the University of British Columbia, for the best tips and tricks to keep your lungs safe in the smog.

What is wildfire smoke and why is it so hazardous?

As fires burn through forests and grasslands, dense smoke is produced that can be carried thousands of kilometres from where it’s burning.

This wildfire smoke can be a major cause of air pollution for Canadians.

“In general, we think that a lot of the same kinds of things that are problematic in traffic-related pollution are also problematic in wildfire smoke because, after all, it is similar in that it’s a mixture of fine particles and gases,” explained Carlsten.

According to Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC), the smoke includes pollutants like:

  • sulphur dioxide
  • nitrogen dioxide
  • carbon monoxide
  • volatile organic compounds
  • fine particulate matter (PM2.5)
  • ozone

Carlsten adds that when these fires encroach in areas with homes and buildings, everything in those structures also goes up in flames, including paint, household products, and plastics that can add to the toxic mixture of smoke.

All of these fine particles can get deep into our lungs and bloodstream.

How can wildfire smoke impact our health?

Carlsten says there are short-term and long-term effects and that it also depends on the overall health of a person.

“The good news is that as awful as it is, and disturbing to see, in general, for most people, at least short term, [wildfire smoke] is well tolerated,” he said.

Short-term impacts include headaches, fatigue, inflamed eyes or nose, a mild cough, and difficulty breathing.

While this may be inconvenient to experience, Carlsten says there won’t be any serious health effects for someone who is generally healthy. He stressed that it’s a different situation for people who are compromised due to age or diseases like asthma, COPD, or heart disease.

“Those people have what I refer to as a lower reserve, which means that the kind of inflammation that most of us can tolerate… becomes more than just mere symptoms of inconvenience, but more significant hazards because they have less room before the medical issues become more urgent,” said Carlsten.

In the long term, as forest fires become the norm in the country, the respirologist says those previously healthy could develop diseases like asthma if there’s consistent exposure to smoke.

What can you do to protect yourself from wildfire smoke?

Looking at Environment and Climate Change Canada’s Air Quality Health Index (AQHI) on Thursday, Toronto is marked at a 7, or a high health risk.


Environment Canada

Other parts of northern Ontario also have smog warnings due to smoke from forest fires in Quebec.

The AQHI measures the concentration of three air pollutants that are harmful to health: ozone, nitrogen dioxide, and fine particulate matter (PM2.5).

With high-risk areas in Ontario, Carlsten advises people to reduce activity levels within reason.

“It really depends on individual personal tolerance, but it’s important to recognize that not only is it harder, in general, to do things when you’re exercising, but it also puts more pollution into the body because when you breathe fast, you’re just putting more air into your body,” he explained.

Another recommendation he has is to keep the air in your home as clean as possible, whether it’s through small filtration devices like air purifiers or bigger air filtration systems in your building.

And it might be time to bring out your N95 masks again, as Carlsten says that’s the most effective filtration system when you’re on the go.

For more information on how to stay safe from wildfire smoke, you can check out the ECCC’s fact page.

Isabelle DoctoIsabelle Docto

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