Canada wildfire air quality warnings: How to protect yourself
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Canada wildfire air quality warnings: How to protect yourself

Mar 31, 2023

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 hundreds 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 using face masks to stay safe. Read on for everything you need to know.

This week, Environment Canada issued special weather statements in Alberta, Ontario, Quebec and parts of Nova Scotia regarding "high levels of air pollution" due to smoke from wildfires.

"Air quality and visibility due to wildfire smoke can fluctuate over short distances and can vary considerably from hour to hour," the statement read. "Wildfire smoke can be harmful to everyone's health even at low concentrations."

In some parts of Quebec and western New Brunswick, Environment Canada also issued smog warnings due to poor air quality.

The Canadian Press reported as of late Monday afternoon, 424 fires were burning across Canada, more than 250 of which were considered out of control.

CP also reported Canada's emergency preparedness minister said the "images of wildfires burning across the country are some of the most severe ever witnessed in Canada and the current forecast for the next few months indicates the potential for continued higher-than-normal fire activity."

As of 4 p.m. on Tuesday, the Air Quality Health Index classifies the following cities as high risk: Fort Smith, AB; Toronto and Ottawa, Ont.; Montreal and Quebec City, Que.; and Yellowknife, N.W.T.

But, even those in moderate risk areas should be mindful, according to a respiratory 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.

"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.

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."

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."

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

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.

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