A study by UBC researchers has shown that negative effects of wildfire smoke show up in populations almost immediately, with ambulance-dispatch rates rising within the first hour after exposure.
The recent (September 8) blanketing of southern Vancouver Island, the Lower Mainland, and the central Okanagan Valley with smoke from Washington state wildfires led to Environment Canada air-quality warnings.
The warnings' risk ratings ranged from moderate to high in Metro Vancouver and very high in parts of Victoria and the Okanagan.
The UBC study—published on June 24 this year in Environmental Health Perspectives, an open-access journal—determined that exposure to the fine particulate matter contained in wildfire smoke caused an increase in ambulance dispatches for reasons related to cardiovascular or repiratory conditions within an hour of exposure.
The research also showed that for people with diabetes, the odds of complications increased within two days of being exposed.
In a UBC release, the paper's lead author, Jiayun Angela Yao, said the rapidity of the smoke's effects was "alarming".
“We have long known about the harmful health effects of wildfire smoke,” Yao said. "But it’s alarming to see just how quickly fine particulate matter seems to affect the respiratory and cardiovascular system. And the acute effects for people with diabetes is relatively new to us.”
Yao conducted the study with three other UBC researchers while completing her PhD in the university's school of population and public health; two coauthors are from B.C. Emergency Health Services and the University of Tasmania.
The release noted the following about particulate matter contained in woodsmoke: "Particulate matter, also called particle pollution, is made up of tiny pieces of dust, dirt, and smoke in the air. While larger particles can irritate the eyes and throat, fine particles are more dangerous as they can reach deep parts of the lungs and even enter the bloodstream."
The research team studied more than 670,000 ambulance calls in B.C. from a half-million individuals between 2010 and 2015, then used statistical modelling to evaluate potential links between the dispatches and hospital admissions related to respiratory, diabetic, and circulatory conditions during wildfire seasons producing fine particulate matter in smoke.
“It is vital that everyone start preparing for wildfire smoke events to ensure that they are ready, especially since COVID-19 still a serious public health threat in B.C.,” Yao said in the release. “Anyone with preexisting heart and lung disease and diabetes is especially vulnerable and should consider purchasing air cleaners and ensuring that they have adequate supplies of medication at home.”
The paper's concluding line stated: "These results warrant further investigation and may have implications for the appropriate time scale of public health actions."