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COLUMN: Maintaining physical and mental health during wildfire season
Nelson Star - 8/12/2022
Acknowledging heightened wildfire severity as a result of climate change effects, identifying its impacts on health, and exploring the ways that we can build resiliency are becoming increasingly important as we navigate another wildfire season in the West Kootenay.
Wildfires are becoming progressively more frequent, sizeable, and intense, which affects our air quality for longer periods of time. It is predicted that the future annual burn area for the Kootenay region will become three-to-five times larger than we've experienced previously. Furthermore, smoke entering our atmosphere from remote wildfires from across Western North America is becoming commonplace during the summer months. With this in mind, how can we prepare, and what steps can we take to promote health and well-being in our communities?
Studies demonstrate that higher rates of hospitalizations and mortality occur during periods of intense wildfire smoke. Wildfire smoke contains many harmful substances, including volatile organic compounds, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, and carbon monoxide. Fine particulate matter at levels less than PM2.5 is present in areas with wildfire smoke, which creates a hazardous environment for outdoor activities and poses risks to our cardiovascular and respiratory health. In Canada, wildfire smoke causes 54-to-240 deaths from acute exposure and 570-to-2,500 deaths from chronic exposure annually. The populations most at risk include the elderly, persons with pre-existing heart and lung conditions, pregnant women, children, persons living in poverty and labourers who work outdoors.
In addition, elevated mental health concerns and anxiety levels are correlated with the wildfire season, and this is intensified by hotter temperatures. Summer is meant to be a time where we can go outside and participate in the activities that we enjoy most. When the wildfire season arrives, not only does it prevent us from playing safely outdoors, it can also trigger anxiety about environmental destruction, fear of the future or traumatic memories of previous evacuations.
Although we cannot change the effects of wildfire smoke on our health, we can change our response to it through preparation and planning. By accepting the inevitability of wildfires in our region, we diminish the element of surprise, which may reduce our anxiety. Staying indoors with closed windows and using air purifiers, wearing a respirator or N95 mask when outdoors, avoiding vigorous exercise outdoors, and staying hydrated will all decrease the effects of wildfire smoke on our health. Utilizing online resources such as the Air Quality Health Index and Firesmoke.ca to monitor air quality levels will help to identify times when it is suitable to be outside or safer to be indoors. Focusing on self-care and social connection as well as taking regular breaks from the news and other media outlets may ease worry and nervousness.
Lastly, taking action on climate change can encourage a positive mindset. Get informed about climate change and its effects on wildfires. Consider making changes to your lifestyle to reduce your carbon footprint or get involved with an environmental advocacy group.
Dr. Dharma McBride is a family and emergency medicine physician
who lives and works in Nelson. He is a proud member of Doctors and Nurses for Planetary Health Kootenay Boundary, an advocacy group of healthcare providers dedicated to affecting local change in response to the climate crisi