Can wildfire smoke make you sick? Health risks and how to protect yourself


A person travels in a boat past people walking on the boardwalk as smoke from the McDougall Creek wildfire blankets the area on Okanagan Lake, in Kelowna, B.C., Friday, Aug. 18, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

A person travels in a boat past people walking on the boardwalk as smoke from the McDougall Creek wildfire blankets the area on Okanagan Lake, in Kelowna, B.C., Friday, Aug. 18, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

This article is for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Contact a qualified medical professional before engaging in any physical activity, or making any changes to your diet, medication or lifestyle.

As dozens of forest and wildfires continue to burn across Canada, ways to protect ourselves from smoke are top-of-mind for many Canadians.

Yahoo Canada spoke to a top respirologist in Toronto who weighed in on the impact of smoke on our lungs, and what to do to stay safe. Read on for everything you need to know.

Where are the wildfires in Canada?

As of Aug. 16, there were 220 uncontrolled fires and more than 400 others across the country, with some areas now of high-priority.

British Columbia has entered a state of emergency due to massive fires across the province, with Kelowna making headlines for devastating impact. The CBC reported more than 30,000 have evacuated their homes in the area, and dozens of homes have burned.

The 110-square-kilometre McDougall Creek fire is burning on both sides of Lake Okanagan, and it’s unknown when it could end.

The McDougall Creek wildfire burns on the mountainside above houses in West Kelowna, B.C., on Friday, August 18, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

The McDougall Creek wildfire burns on the mountainside above houses in West Kelowna, B.C., on Friday, August 18, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

Last week, Yellowknife, the capital of the Northwest Territories, was under a mandatory evacuation order as fires barrelled towards the city of about 20,000 residents. In Fort Smith, N.W.T. a fire continues to burn just four kilometres from the community.

The air quality health index rated Yellowknife’s risk at a 9 for smoke, while the risk in Fort Smith, is higher than 10.

B.C. and N.W.T. areas are under “smokey skies” bulletins, warning residents of the impact.

“Wildfire smoke can be harmful to everyone’s health even at low concentrations. Everyone can take action to reduce their exposure to wildfire smoke.”

According to a respiratory expert, everyone should be careful when it comes to smoke — even those further away from the fires.

Wildfire smoke symptoms, and impact of wildfire smoke on our health: Expert

Dr. John Granton, a respirologist at the Toronto General Hospital (University Health Network), told Yahoo Canada wildfires cause air pollution that can have a far-reaching effect on human health.

Small air pollutant particles in the smoke, called the PM2.5 particles, are “where a lot of the toxic stuff lives,” Granton explained.

Man cough with dirty lung because air pollution PM2.5 air poll.  smoke, smog, respiratory, environment, health, breath. Cartoon, Vector, illustration

Man cough with dirty lung because air pollution PM2.5 air poll. smoke, smog, respiratory, environment, health, breath. Cartoon, Vector, illustration

“That’s not filtered by your upper airway, that gets access to your lower airway and into your bloodstream even — and that’s where the danger lies.

“That can cause asthma attacks, can cause heart attacks, can contribute to hospitalizations and has long-term health outcomes.”

Even just the smell could cause problems to some, he said.

“Being in smog all day long, the smell bothers people; it can cause irritation of the upper airway, some of the larger particles can cause irritation, and cause symptoms. People [who] have chest symptoms or asthma, it can make them feel worse.”

Granton said smoke isn’t easy to escape, but there are some things people can do try and stay safe.

Can face masks protect us from smoke?

According to Granton, “there’s not a lot of data to support the health benefits of masking” when it comes to safety from wildfire smoke. But, he said there is research looking into the effectiveness of filters.

“Cloth masks or scarves and things are not effective at all,” the doctor claimed.

But, surgical masks and N95 filter masks “tend to filter those smaller particles,” he added, “apparently some of those masks are effective.”

A cyclist wears a mask due to poor air quality conditions as smoke from wildfires in Ontario and Quebec hangs over Ottawa on Tuesday, June 6, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

A cyclist wears a mask due to poor air quality conditions as smoke from wildfires in Ontario and Quebec hangs over Ottawa on Tuesday, June 6, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

Granton said “they’re not going to filter the gases,” though, and there are studies that question whether masks that aren’t properly fitted would actually help in the real world.

“Whether or not that has a direct health benefit is speculative right now,” Granton explained.

However, he said it “may be reasonable” for those who have underlying health conditions and those who have to be in the hotspots of the pollution to wear one.

“If you have to be outdoors and doing things, then wearing that sort of mask to protect you would be sensible.”

Environment Canada echoed in its weather warnings “a well-fitted respirator type mask… that does not allow air to pass through small openings between the mask and face, can help reduce your exposure to the fine particles in smoke.”

On Wednesday, Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos told reporters he’s encouraging people, especially those with pre-existing respiratory conditions, to wear an N95 mask, the CTV reported.

“For all of these people, including others that may want to protect themselves against the bad consequences of bad quality air, wearing an N95 mask is the recommended procedure by health authorities,” Duclos said on Wednesday.

How else to protect yourself from wildfire smoke?

Though filtration masks could aid in protecting your lungs from smoke, the number one recommendation from experts is to stay indoors.

A woman walks her dog along the Ottawa River in Ottawa as smoke from wildfires obscures Gatineau, Que., in the distance on Tuesday, June 6, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

Canadian experts are advising to stay indoors to protect yourself from wildfire smoke. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick)

According to Health Canada, the following measures should also be taken:

  • Reduce sources of indoor air pollution (smoking, vacuuming, burning candles, wood stoves)

  • Prevent infiltration of outside air (seal windows, instal a high-quality air filter, set HVAC system to recirculation mode, limit use of exhaust fans when not cooking)

  • Have a functioning CO alarm

  • Use a portable air purifier and air conditioning

Granton echoed this advice.

“Most people recommend staying indoors as much as possible and not exercising or doing things outside,” he reiterated.

Let us know what you think by commenting below and tweeting @YahooStyleCA! Follow us on Twitter and Instagram.





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