Wildfires are predicted to become more prevalent and severe in the future, and a study, published in The Lancet Planetary Health, suggests they are increasingly recognized as a health issue.
The study — which tracked over two million Canadians over 20 years — has found there is a higher incidence of lung cancer and brain tumors in people exposed to wildfires.
“Wildfires tend to happen in the same locations each year, but we know very little about the long-term health effects of these events. Our study shows that living in close proximity to wildfires may increase the risk of certain cancers,” says Scott Weichenthal, an associate professor in the Department of Epidemiology, Biostatistics, and Occupational Health at McGill University.
So, just how much higher is the risk for those living in areas where wildfires are occurring?
The researchers have found that people living within 50 kilometres of wildfires over the past 10 years had a 10% higher incidence of brain tumors and 4.9% higher incidence of lung cancer, compared to those who live further away.
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The researchers at McGill University say this is the first study to look into how proximity to forest fires may influence cancer risk.
“Many of the pollutants emitted by wildfires are known human carcinogens, suggesting that exposure could increase cancer risk in humans,” says Jill Korsiak, a PhD student in Professor Weichenthal’s lab who led the analysis.
The researchers at McGill warn that since wildfires typically occur in similar regions each year, people living in nearby communities might be exposed to carcinogenic wildfire pollutants on a chronic basis.
The study says further work is needed to develop more long-term estimates of the chronic health effects of wildfires.
Last summer in BC, there were hundreds of fires recorded around the province and officials warned that we were seeing fire activity earlier than usual.