New Report: Forest fire smoke driving increased health risks from air pollution worldwide – including Canada

Ottawa/Canberra/Brazil/London – 16/17 June 2021 – As firefighting crews from British Columbia and Alberta deploy to help fight wildfires in Quebec and Ontario, even as parts of the Okanagan in British Columbia set records for low rainfall this spring, a global report on wildfires released today by the Global Climate and Health Alliance emphasizes that bigger, more frequent forest and bush fires are having increased and not yet well-studied health impacts on people including through longer and more frequent exposure to fire smoke by larger populations in distant cities. 

The report, The Limits of Livability – The emerging threat of smoke impacts on health from forest fires and climate change, includes case studies from Canada, Australia, and Brazil. It warns that, worldwide, governments must act to prepare public health systems to be able to manage health impacts from recurring air pollution episodes resulting from fires caused by the climate crisis, deforestation practices, and poor land management.

Lead author of the report, Dr. Frances MacGuire said, “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.”

“What The Limits of Livability report shows us is that climate change, climate impacts and health are intertwined, and that policymakers must put health concerns front and centre when creating policies for dealing with climate change – including in their national commitments under the Paris Agreement, the Nationally Determined Commitments (NDCs),” said Dr. Jeni Miller, Executive Director of the Global Climate and Health Alliance. 

“The implementation of both systematic monitoring and reduction of air pollution from forest fires must go hand-in-hand with reducing the causes of forest fires and an improved public health response. Ultimately global leaders, including those in the countries experiencing the worst forest and bush fires, must step up and limit the warming of the planet through rapid climate action,” Miller said. 

Dr. Sarah Henderson, Scientific Director, Environmental Health Services, British Columbia Center for Disease Control, said in an interview for the report, “What tends to happen as smoke comes, is everybody gets all worked up about it, and then it leaves, and then they forget about it, and then maybe the next year is not a bad year…but this problem is with us for decades. And it’s going to have long-term health consequences.”

Past-president of CAPE, wildfire researcher and ER doctor Dr. Courtney Howard said, “In 2014 we had fully double the normal number of visits to our ER for asthma over two and a half months. We need to anticipate further wildfires, make sure our communities know their evacuation plans and have clean air shelters, and ensure that our home and hospital ventilation systems can cope with severe smoke. And to prevent smoke that we can’t adapt to, we need to meet and exceed our greenhouse gas reduction goals. Here in Canada, the most urgent action item is that we need to make sure Bill C-12, our draft climate governance legislation, gets passed before the House of Commons and the Senate rise for the summer. Prevention and preparation are the prescription for reducing the health impacts of wildfires and there is no time to lose.”

Key facts: 

  • Under current greenhouse gas emissions scenarios, wildfires are projected to increase substantially across 74% of the world by 2100. This sets off a feedback loop in which wildfires drive forest loss which can release substantial greenhouse gas emissions, which in turn causes more wildfires.
  • Smoke from forest fires and bushfires travels significant distances, with smoke from the 2019-2020 bushfires in Australia traveling 66,000km and smoke from fires in Alberta, Canada in 2019 traveling as far as Europe. 
  • Wildfire smoke can lead to significant spikes in air pollution, while longer burning fires can expose significant populations to increased air pollution over a long period of time. Annually recurring major fires increase exposure year on year. 
  • The 2017 fires in Canada prompted a 10-week state of emergency, yet public health guidance on wildfire response is premised on smoke exposures of three days to one week. 

The report can be downloaded from the Global Climate and Health Alliance website here: https://climateandhealthalliance.org/the-limits-of-livability/ 

Country snapshots on Canada, Brazil, and Australia are available.

Interviews available with:
Dr. Courtney Howard, CAPE Past-President, Global Climate and Health Alliance Board Member, Yellowknife. Email (can be public) doctorswithinborders@gmail.com 867-446-7776

Dr. Samantha Green, Family Physician, Climate Change and Health Lead University of Toronto Department of Family and Community Medicine, CAPE Board Member samanthaegreen@gmail.com 647-529-1583

Dr. Claudel Petrin-Descrosiers, QC/French media requests –Family Practice Resident, President Quebec Association of Physicians for the Environment + CAPE Board Member claudel.pdesrosiers@gmail.com 438-831-0594

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