Ontario wildfires ignite health concerns

Climate change impacts the most vulnerable first

Wildfire smoke blanketed Kingston in June.

Kingston residents awoke to smoke-filled air on June 5.

A blanket of high air pollution, caused by wildfires raging across northern Ontario and Quebec, descended on the greater Kingston area between June 5 and June 8 before blowing south towards Toronto and New York.

For 24-hours on June 7 Kingston’s air quality was categorized as “very high risk.” Health experts and Kingston administrators encouraged residents to close their windows and remain indoors.

There have been 787 wildfires in Ontario and Quebec to date, exceeding the 10-year average, according to Natural Resources Canada.

To protect residents from air pollution, Kingston allowed public buildings, usually used as warming and cooling locations, to act as smoke respite centres.

Wildfire smoke contains pollutants such as ozone, nitrogen oxides and sulfur oxides, but it’s the micro particles that pose health risks, explained Mike Fitzpatrick, a respirologist and the chief of staff and executive vice president of medical and academic affairs at Kingston Health Sciences Centre.

“Those very small particles are inhaled deep into the lungs. When they get into the lungs, they’re recognized as foreign particles, the body tries to get rid of them, and then the process there’s a lot of inflammation that goes on,” Fitzpatrick said in an interview with The Journal.

Fitzpatrick clarified short-term exposure to air pollution, such as with wildfire smoke, doesn’t cause any long-term health issues. Usually, it’s individuals with asthma or other underlying respiratory conditions who experience symptoms.

“If we measure [a non-asthmatic’s] lung function after exposure to a lot of us fine particles, we will find that their lung function has decreased compared to what it would normally be,” Fitzpatrick said. “But not to the point where they get symptoms or where they feel bad.”

Fitzpatrick reported an uptick of patients entering the healthcare system with complaints related to breathing during the wildfires. He recommended wearing an N-95 mask and reducing outdoor activity during periods of high air pollution.

“A lot of the students may be in homes that don’t have any air conditioning. The issue there is if you’re closing your windows and doors for air pollution, and it’s hot outside, then it’d be pretty uncomfortable,” Fitzpatrick said. “For [students] I think it may be worth investing in one of those air filter devices.”

The City of Kingston recommended setting HVAC systems to re-circulate indoor airflow, and to use highly rated MERV filters rated 13 or higher. Over the COVID-19 pandemic, Queen’s upgraded its air filtration system, complying with researched best practices.

“Where possible, the introduction of outside air into building ventilation systems is being reduced when outdoor conditions are smokey,” Queen’s Facilities said in a statement to The Journal.

Not everyone has the privilege of closing a window, and its society’s most vulnerable who feel the impact of wildfires the most, Julia Christensen, Queen’s associate professor in the department of geography and planning, raised in an interview with The Journal.

“When we look at something like wildfire smoke, and the broader effects of the volatility of climate change, [having] access to safe and secure housing allows certain members of the of the population to be able to respond better in ways that are more protective of their health and well-being than those who don’t have housing,” Christensen said.

It’s not only the unhoused who are more exposed to the risks of wildfires. Christensen commented on the challenges wildfires create for Ontario’s northern residents, particularly Indigenous communities who participate in land-based activities.

“[Wildfires] have impacts on housing, they lead to the loss of housing stock. They have impacts on transportation into and out of Northern rural and remote communities. Transportation is a factor, not just in terms of people’s ability to get in and out,
but the ability to get materials, labor, other resources,” Christensen said.

“When you have wildfires that are preventing access into and out of communities, that has consequences in terms of a community’s ability to rebuild. It loses valuable infrastructure, it has consequences in terms of people’s access to health services, and people’s ability to leave for employment.”

Christensen pointed to the evacuation of the Hay River and K’atl’odeeche First Nation in the Northwest Territories as examples of the enormous impact wildfires have on northern communities.

While Kingston’s air quality has returned to “low risk,” experts warn climate change could make natural disasters, such as wildfires, more commonplace.

“[Wildfires are] not going away anytime soon. We’re just seeing more and more of the inequities between the housed and unhoused, in terms of their ability to respond to the environmental impacts of climate change,” Christensen said.


Climate change, Kingston, wildfires

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