Wildfire pollution can cause headaches, skin irritation

As wildfires continue raging across the country, the GTA could experience more days with bad air quality. Shauna Hunt reports

By Dilshad Burman

The air pollution caused by smoke from wildfires in Ontario and Quebec can no doubt lead to various respiratory problems, but there are a number of other, less obvious health impacts that could crop up.

Dr. Samantha Green from Unity Health Toronto explains that wildfire smoke “is made up of a whole soup of pollutants.”

“The one group of pollutants we think most about are Particulate Matter 2.5 (PM 2.5), and those are the very tiny particulates that can not only [affect] the eyes, the nose, the throat, the lungs, but they actually get deep, deep into the lungs and can enter the bloodstream,” she explains.

“Within an hour of exposure to wildfire smoke, we can document widespread inflammation in the body.”

Inflammation leads to pain and she says people most often complain of headaches in this context.

“The larger particulate matter, PM 10, is what can cause those kinds of irritating symptoms. So the eye irritation, runny nose, sore throat, and even the skin symptoms,” she adds, including itching, burning sensations and exacerbation of eczema flareups.

Extended exposure to wildfire smoke can have more serious consequences.

Citing a study done in Australia during one of their wildfire seasons, Green says “prolonged exposure to wildfire smoke did have adverse impacts on pregnant women.”

“So there was an increase in low birth weight amongst babies born to mothers who had prolonged exposure to a long season of wildfire smoke.”

However, she cautions that there have not been many such studies conducted on the effects of wildfire smoke specifically, but there is a lot of data available on the effects of air pollution in general and it is possible to extrapolate information from some of those findings.

“Impacts of air pollution are extensive and really in every system in the body. We know that exposure to air pollution in both the short and long term can cause lung problems and an exacerbation of allergy symptoms related to an upregulation of the immune system. There are impacts on the heart and cardiovascular systems, mostly for people who have preexisting heart disease,” she says.

Green adds that air pollution can also have long-term impacts on neurological systems, with a link to dementia and other neurodegenerative conditions. Certain cancers including leukemia and breast cancer have also been linked to air pollution.

“[It has also been connected to] exacerbation of underlying mental health conditions like anxiety and worsening of sleep,” adds Green.

“There are also significant mental health impacts from taking the precautions that are necessary to protect yourself from the smoke,” namely staying indoors and closing all doors and windows — which remains the best advice to avoid any adverse effects.

Minimizing the use of exhaust fans above the stove and in the bathroom is also advisable.

She adds that if you do need to go outside when the air quality is poor, a well fitted N95 mask can be protective. All health impacts are related to the amount of exposure, so a short period of time outside is unlikely to cause long-term consequences.

On a wider scale however, Green says the “root cause” of wildfires and air pollution need to be dealt with.

“We do need to tackle the climate crisis. The silver lining of tackling the climate crisis is that we’re actually tackling air pollution at the same time,” she says.

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