Health impacts of smoke from wildfires call for more preparation as well as more research

Reports of the heat, drought and wildfires in the U.S. this summer are alarming, but Canada is also at risk. Though conditions are not as extreme as the U.S., British Columbia is under a warning for a prolonged heat wave, wildfire evacuations have already begun in Alberta,and Ontario’s wildfires are so much more numerous than normal that Alberta has responded to the province’s appeal for more firefighters. Against this backdrop, the Global Climate and Health Alliance (GCHA) released a report in early June: The Limits of Livability – The emerging threat of smoke impacts on health from forest fires and climate change.  Accompanying the main report are country briefs specific to  Australia , Brazil and Canada.  The  overview report documents the impacts of wildfires, emphasizes how unprepared we are, and warns that governments must act to prepare public health systems for the health impacts of recurring air pollution episodes. Lead author Dr. Frances MacGuire states : “The short term health effects of forest smoke are now well documented but the long term effects of extended exposure are unknown. It is clear that there are significant research gaps in understanding the full health impacts of smoke from increased wildfire risk in a warming world, and on primary and secondary health services.” 

The Country Brief for Canada  provides health statistics about the 2018 B.C. wildfires and the Summer of Smoke around Yellowknife Northwest Territories in 2014. One of the detailed medical papers referenced  is SOS! Summer of Smoke: a retrospective cohort study examining the cardiorespiratory impacts of a severe and prolonged wildfire season in Canada’s high subarctic, which appeared in  BMJ Open in 2021. The authors of the Country Brief call for greater urgency to combat climate change, as well as specific calls to 1. Strengthen the pan-Canadian emergency response, 2.  develop easy to understand emergency response plans for residents and communities, and 3.  Tackle inequalities in smoke exposure, including recognition of greater vulnerability of Indigenous people living in remote areas.   

Australia’s disastrous wildfires of 2019/20 resulted in a Royal Commission into National Natural Disaster Management Arrangements (also known as the Bushfire Royal Commission), and much of the Australia Country Brief summarizes the issues covered by the commission – notably, Indigenous practices and knowledge.  (Note that the Terms of Reference for the Commission included firefighter safety and training).  The Brief reports that the  Australian Institute of Health and Welfare has secured funding for a large-scale research project to study the medium-term health impacts of smoke and ash exposure, including mental health, for frontline responders and affected communities.

The Brazil Country Brief  is centred on the role of deliberate fires set for land clearance for agriculture. The Brief calls for a moratorium on deforestation and fires for clearing land, combined with strong supervision.

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