How 2014’s smoky NWT summer affected our health
The NWT’s extreme 2014 wildfire season saw emergency room and clinic visits double as people sought help for asthma, pneumonia and other respiratory conditions.
That summer – the “summer of smoke” – saw 385 wildfires burn 3.4 million hectares of the territory. A new study examines the impacts of the smoke on cardiorespiratory health.
Authored by Yellowknife emergency room doctor Courtney Howard and other academics, the paper draws on years of work by the Yellowknives Dene, the Ka’ga’a Tu First Nation in Kakisa, Ecology North, other Yellowknife physicians, and academics in southern Canada. It was published in BMJ Open, a peer-reviewed open-access medical journal, this month.
Two and a half months of smoky NWT skies in 2014 presented, in retrospect, a gift to researchers. A news release outlining the study’s key findings describes that summer as “one of the longest and most severe smoke exposures in the global medical literature base,” occurring in a place with such “pristine baseline air quality” that the smoke and its impacts can be more readily attributed to wildfires.
Communities studied include Yellowknife, Dettah, Ndilǫ, and Kaskisa.
Data from health centres that summer shows a 48-percent increase in distribution of salbutamol, a medication given to ease breathing, compared to previous summers. One community pharmacy ran out of supplies.
The poor air quality was associated with an 11-percent increase in asthma-related emergency room visits, a six-percent increase in pneumonia-related emergency room visits, and an 11-percent increase in chronic obstructive pulmonary disease-related hospital admissions.
The paper concludes some impacts were seen disproportionately in populations such as children and Indigenous people.
At primary care clinics, the study found, “visits for cough and pneumonia doubled in 2014 and clinic visits for asthma increased more than 50 percent compared with earlier years.”
Researchers noted that as Yellowknife residents with sensitive airways are used to the city’s “excellent baseline air quality,” they might not have had medication to help them handle the smoke, which may account in part for the increased number of trips to the emergency room and clinics.
The study also reported that while 76 percent of residents surveyed about that summer remembered announcements asking them to stay inside, only 48 percent actually reduced the time they spent outside.
“Health professionals should prepare for increasingly severe wildfire seasons by prescribing refills of breathing medications for vulnerable patients and helping them to access Hepa (high-efficiency particulate air) filters, as well as ensuring their patient populations understand how to interpret the Air Quality Health Index, where to find clean air shelters, and their community’s evacuation or shelter-in-place plan,” said Howard, who was the lead author of the study.
“We found that people who knew what to do were less anxious – the prescription for both improved mental and physical health during severe wildfires is preparation.”