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Following disastrous wildfires over the summer and a major fire incident in New Brunswick this week, the effects of smoke on a person's health is top-of-mind for many Canadians.
In light of recent events, 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.
What happened in New Brunswick?
A fire began early Thursday morning at a metal recycling plant called American Iron and Metal in Saint John, N.B., forcing three schools to close due to the smoke. The situation, on the city's waterfront, saw small explosions in a burning pile of shredded car parts that measures 10 metres high and 300 metres by 300 metres.
Following the situation, Environment Canada issued a special air quality statement for downtown Saint John, which was in place until Thursday evening. Around 4:20 p.m. local time, the Saint John Emergency Management Organization (SJ-EMO) expanded its shelter-in-place order to include the entire city due to the affected air quality.
While firefighters have made progress, Saint John Fire Chief Kevin Clifford said "a lot" of work remains.
"I do hope by tomorrow morning, we're in a situation where we have total control, and if some rain rolls into our community it's just helpful," he said at a press briefing.
Currently, there are no reported injuries from the incident, but officials say the air quality can impact people's health.
This is not a volcano eruption, it’s yet another major event at AIM Metal Recycling at @PortSaintJohn in the @cityofsaintjohn. Asking the citizens of Saint John to accept this organization is unreasonable both in terms of risk and impact on the community. It’s time to cancel the… pic.twitter.com/uMuZBUtDB6
— Don Darling (@dondarlingSJ) September 14, 2023
How can smoke impact your health?
The SJ-EMO has urged local residents to remain home if possible. It also suggested people close all windows and doors, and turn off any HVAC systems.
Dr. Rita Raafat Gad, the acting medical officer of health for the Saint John region, said the industrial fire contains a mixture of chemicals including metals, plastics, rubber and foam. While it's not certain what's being emitted by the fire, she said the smoke can be "hazardous" to people's health.
In a previous interview, Dr. John Granton, a respirologist at the Toronto General Hospital (University Health Network), told Yahoo Canada that air pollution 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," he added.
"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."
We are sharing the following on behalf of Saint John EMO:
URGENT NOTICE: Shelter in place notice issued for areas of City due to smoke from fire at AIM facility
The SJ-EMO has issued a voluntary shelter-in-place order for residents in the City’s South end and Millidgeville areas…
— Government of NB (@Gov_NB) September 14, 2023
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."
The SJ-EJO echoed in its advisory that "wearing a well-fitted respirator mask, like an N95 and not a surgical mask, can help to reduce exposure to fine particles, but may not protect against other contaminants."
How else can you protect yourself from fire 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.