Study led by CAPE Past President Dr. Courtney Howard shows doubled emergency room emissions from asthma after a smoke-filled summer in Canada’s Subarctic

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Study led by CAPE Past President Dr. Courtney Howard shows doubled emergency room emissions from asthma after a smoke-filled summer in Canada’s Subarctic 

February 4, 2020, Toronto, Ont. – The Summer of Smoke – SOS – in 2014 led to a two and a half months of smoke exposure in Canada’s Subarctic. Research released today in BMJ Open demonstrates that this extreme smoke exposure was associated with a doubling of ER visits for asthma and of primary care visits for pneumonia and cough as compared to previous summers. New quantitative analysis of air quality and health services data bolsters a previously-published interview-based study and demonstrates that 385 wildfires resulted in a 48% increase in community dispensation of salbutamol, a medication given to ease breathing.

CAPE Past President Dr. Courtney Howard was compelled to undertake this study as a result of observations at work as an emergency physician: “I felt I was seeing more patients with asthma in the emergency department in 2014–and indeed our asthma-related visits doubled,” says Dr. Howard. “We know further smoky summers are coming so we wanted to learn as much as possible from this one so we, and other communities, can adapt in the healthiest way possible. We can see from the evacuation of families in Perth, Australia, due to wildfires this week just after a COVID-19-related lockdown was announced that we could be headed into a complex summer from a public health perspective. The prescription is preparation.”

Dr. Claudel Pétrin-Desrosiers, CAPE Board Member and Quebec lead, stressed the importance of the study in the context of a changing climate: “Climate change increases the risk and the frequency of wildfires. Their impacts of our communities can be devastating, as demonstrated in this new study. As healthcare providers, we need to be more aware of the growing threats posed by climate change on our health and the subsequent potential burden on our already overcrowded healthcare services.”

Canada continues to warm, and this part of the Subarctic is already 2.5 degrees C warmer than it was 70 years ago. The pristine baseline air quality in the Northwest Territories allows the influence of smoke to be more directly attributed to wildfires than in most other studies.

This study is the final product of a years-long Health Canada-funded collaboration between the Yellowknives Dene, the Ka’ga’a Tu First Nation, Ecology North, Yellowknife physicians, and academics from southern Canada, with Dr. James Orbinski the Principal Investigator and CAPE a proud supporter. Two minute videos on clean air shelters, firesmarting communities, and the mental health impacts of wildfires and climate change have been produced to help other communities prepare for future Summers of Smoke.


For interview requests, additional materials, or comment, please contact Dr. Courtney Howard at