Occupational Hazards of Wildfire Smoke Exposure

Wildfire Smoke Exposure Video Transcription

Welcome to this Chemscape presentation on wildfire smoke exposure. During the wildfire season [in Western Canada], early April to late October, you may be operating in areas where the air quality is being affected by wildfire smoke. Working in poor air quality can affect your work performance and health. 

Occupational Hazards of Wildfire Smoke Exposure - Chemscape

What is Wildfire Smoke?

Wildfire smoke is a form of air pollution that can affect your health. It is a complex mixture of gases, particles, and water vapor that contains pollutants such as sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, carbon monoxide, volatile organic compounds, and fine particulate matter. These particles are small enough to enter our lungs and bloodstream. 

How Does Wildfire Smoke Harm My Body?

Exposure to wildfire smoke irritates the lungs, causes inflammation, and alters immune function. If you live or work in an area where the air quality becomes compromised with wildfire smoke, it is important to monitor the air quality index daily. Air quality describes the concentration of pollutants in the air we breathe. Air quality is constantly changing and is affected by emission sources, weather conditions, and the physical landscape of an area. 

People's reaction to wildfire smoke varies greatly. Some populations are at greater risk for health issues, including small children, pregnant women, elderly, people with chronic heart or lung disease, people who do physical outdoor work, people who exercise or play sports outdoors. Wildfire smoke travels with the wind and can affect populations who live hundreds or even thousands of miles downwind of the fire zone. It is important to note that during heavy smoke conditions, everyone is at risk. Wildfire smoke irritates your respiratory system, enters your lungs, and affects your breathing. Particulate matter enters your bloodstream, makes it harder to get oxygen into your blood, causes inflammation, and affects your immune system. 

What Are the Symptoms of Wildfire Smoke Exposure?

Common symptoms of wildfire smoke exposure include eye irritation, runny nose, sore throat, mild cough, headache, phlegm, mild wheezing. Serious health effects of wildfire smoke: shortness of breath, severe cough, dizziness, chest pains, heart palpitations. Wildfire smoke can increase the risk of some infections like pneumonia, COVID-19, and ear infections in children. 

Air Quality Health Index

The Air Quality Health Index is a scale designed to help you understand what the quality of the air around you means to your health. The higher the AQHI number, the greater the health risk and need to take precautions. Check the AQHI in your community before heading off to work. The following table from Environment and Climate Change Canada provides the health messages for at-risk individuals and the general public. If the AQHI index increases to seven, high health risk, it is usually because of high concentrations of smoke particles in the air. 

How to Reduce Wildfire Smoke Exposure

Reducing your exposure to wildfire smoke is the best protection for your health. HEPA air filters can effectively remove smoke particles from indoor air. Office HVAC systems should be inspected and maintained. Higher efficiency filters can be used for the duration of wildfire smoke. HVAC system technicians can adjust systems to improve air quality inside buildings during wildfire smoke episodes. 

Libraries, community centers, and shopping malls offer cool filtered air to provide a break from wildfire smoke. Limit outdoor or strenuous physical activity as much as possible. People breathe more quickly and deeply when they exercise. Reduce your level of exertion or stop altogether. Keep the windows closed and set the ventilation system to recirculate if you are driving through an area with wildfire smoke. Monitor your health if you work outside. Watch for signs of heat stress and exhaustion in yourself and other workers. Be mindful of others who may be more vulnerable to the health effects of wildfire smoke. Stay hydrated as drinking water helps your body deal with inflammation caused by wildfire smoke. Respirators may be required if you work in areas with moderate to high levels of wildfire smoke. The choice of respirator depends on the type of work you do and the air quality. 

Types of Respirators that Reduce Wildfire Smoke Exposure

N-95, CAN-95, KN-95, KF-95 respirators can be worn for moderate exposure. A good fit is important for filtration. These masks reduce the particulate matter inhaled by 95%. More advanced protection may be required for your situation. Contact a health and safety representative for professional guidance.  

Create a plan with your doctor if you are in a high-risk group for health effects from wildfire exposure. The health effects from wildfire smoke will improve for most people as the air quality improves. There is currently little evidence available on the long-lasting effects of wildfire smoke on human health. Caution is encouraged in the absence of scientific evidence. Being aware of the effects of wildfire smoke at work and taking precautions to reduce your exposure is an important step to create a healthy and safe workplace for everyone. 


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