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How Air Pollution (Including Wildfire Smoke) is Affecting our Health

smoke stacks with polluted air

With the recent wildfires burning uncontrollably in Alberta, we were all forced to inhale forest firethe thick and smoky air, making it hard to breath. Chronic exposure to wildfire smoke can have long-term health effects, especially for people with existing respiratory problems, such as asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Air pollution is a big problem, not just in over-populated countries, but right here at home.

The World Health Organization (WHO) emphasizes that the world is getting hotter and more crowded. Factor in the engines that continue to spew out dirty emissions and the fact that half the world has no access to clean fuels or technologies, such as the modern-day stove and lamps, and you get air pollution that kills approximately 7 million people each year.

What are the consequences of air pollution to our health?

When the air quality is bad, we experience immediate effects. Weepy eyes, coughing, sore throat and difficulty breathing. For those that already suffer from respiratory issues, bad air quality can be extremely dangerous. According to a 2018 article published in HuffPost, air pollution is almost as deadly as tobacco. In 2016, it was linked to the deaths of 6.1 million people, according the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation.

What are they symptoms you can experience from air pollution?

When the air quality is bad, the effects can be almost immediate. According to Health Canada, symptoms may include, but are not limited to:

  • tiredness
  • headache or dizziness
  • coughing and sneezing
  • wheezing or difficulty breathing
  • more mucous in the nose or throat
  • dry or irritated eyes, nose, throat and skin

Symptoms can be more severe for those with lung or heart disease. As well, pregnant women should be particularly cautious when air quality is poor. Air pollution symptoms can appear almost immediately and it is advised to stay indoors when air pollution is bad, especially during wildfires. The wind can spread the smoke quickly and far distances.

Who is most at risk of health issues due to air pollution?

smoke stacksPeople who already suffer from respiratory issues such as asthma or COPD will suffer more than those with healthy lungs. That said, air pollution can cause issues for even the healthiest person. Doctors and specialists confirm that even small particles in the air can cause pulmonary irritation and, in extreme cases, heart attacks and disease, stroke and even certain cancers. Air pollution also can affect pregnant women, causing miscarriages, premature birth and possible complications for the baby after birth. It also can lead to predisposition to asthma and other respiratory illnesses.

What to do if you are experiencing health issues due to air pollution?

Health Canada advises that if you’re experiencing symptoms due to air pollution, you should keep track of when they start and end. As well, you should seek medical advice if the symptoms progress and don’t subside. If you are work in an environment that has poor indoor air quality, you should discuss this with your supervisor or the occupational health and safety officer to understand what can and should be done to ensure a healthy work environment.

What can be done to improve air quality and decrease air pollution?

The WHO confirms that air pollution is absolutely linked to climate change. Climate change is caused by fossil fuel combustion, which also contributes to major air pollution. The first WHO Global Conference on Air Pollution and Health was held Oct. 30 – Nov. 1, 2018. The purpose of the conference was to address air pollution and figure out how to improve air quality, combat climate change and ultimately, save lives.