How can wildfire smoke impact your health?

The Conexus Arts Centre and the Saskatchewan Legislative Building are shown as part of a smoky Regina skyline from forest fires on May 17, 2023. PHOTO BY KAYLE NEIS /Regina Leader-Post

With wildfire smoke blowing into Saskatchewan from northern Alberta and B.C., the Air Quality Health Index can help determine if you’re at risk.

Angela Amato

Regina Leader-Post

As more and more wildfires pop up across the country, hazy conditions will become ubiquitous throughout the summer months, raising questions on air pollution and how the smoke can impact our health.

While you can certainly smell and see wildfire smoke, the Air Quality Health Index (AQHI) may be your best bet at determining what outdoor activities to avoid, especially if you are elderly, have a heart condition or a respiratory illness.

Environment Canada says those at risk also include pregnant people, children, people who work outdoors, people involved in strenuous outdoor activities, and those with an existing illness or chronic health condition.

The AQHI is a scale from one to 10 that is used to give people an idea of the risks associated with the levels of air pollution. High risk conditions can cause irritated eyes, increased mucus production, coughing and difficulty breathing.

Low risk conditions range from one to three on the AQHI. Environment Canada says this is considered “ideal air quality for outdoor activities.”

Once the air quality reaches between four and six — or moderate on the index — it’s recommended that at-risk individuals consider reducing strenuous activities. The same goes if you are experiencing symptoms like coughing or throat irritation.

If the AQHI scale falls between seven and 10, it is then considered to be high risk. Environment Canada suggests those who are at risk should reduce or reschedule strenuous outdoor activity and that children and the elderly “take it easy.”

Once the index exceeds that threshold, conditions are classified as very high risk. Children, the elderly, those with heart conditions or difficulty breathing are all advised to avoid physically demanding activities. At this point, the general public is encouraged to reduce arduous activities.

Those with asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease may notice an increase in coughing, wheezing, shortness of breath or phlegm as smoky conditions persist.

People with heart conditions may experience increased shortness of breath, swelling in the ankles and feet, increased fluttering in the chest, light-headedness or an increase in chest or arm pain.

Environment Canada says studies have shown that modest increases in air pollution can cause small but measurable increases in emergency room visits, hospital admissions and death.

The most effective way to protect yourself and your family is to keep an eye on the AQHI and reduce outdoor activities when air quality levels are particularly risky.

You can typically find the AQHI on your smart phone’s weather app or through Environment Canada.

Saskatchewan received its first air quality alert over the weekend as winds blew in smoke from Alberta and B.C. fires.

An evacuation alert was issued for Fort McMurray, AB on Friday night as an out-of-control wildfire burned nearby. The northern city with a population of about 68,000 saw roughly 2,400 homes destroyed in a wildfire in 2016. As of Monday morning, there were 46 active fires in Alberta, with most in the northern forest area near the town of High Level.

There were 137 active wildfires burning in B.C. A fire near Fort Nelson in the far northeastern corner of the province prompted evacuations in the area on Friday, with the region’s roughly 3,000 residents told to flee to Fort St. John, located some 380 kilometres to the southeast.

There were 14 active wildfires burning in Saskatchewan as of Monday morning. Since the beginning of the year, the province has seen a total of 150 fires. A 421-hectare fire burning in the forest area near Hall Lake, about 255 kms north of Saskatoon, is classified as “not contained” by the Saskatchewan Public Safety Agency. The community of Hall Lake is on evacuation alert due to potential highway closures from fire activity.