Breathing in bad air: The health costs of climate change and wildfires

Smoke from Alberta wildfires is pushing its way across Canadian provinces, darkening the spring sky and fouling the fresh air.

The sun glows an unmistakable amber, alerting everyone that fire season is here — much earlier than many anticipated, including fire officials themselves.

Harold Larson’s parents were forced from their rural community of Evansburg, Alta., earlier this month.

They have since returned home to the community west of Edmonton, but Larson’s mind is not far from the men and women fighting the fires on the front lines. He used to be one of them.

“I travelled all around Canada and the United States and did a couple of seasons in Australia. It was great, a challenging and rewarding job,” said Larson of his wildland firefighting days. He now lives in Vancouver.

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He spent two decades face-to-face with some of the fiercest wildfires in Alberta, including the 2011 disaster that leveled roughly one-third of Slave Lake and the 2016 blaze aptly called “The Beast” in Fort McMurray, which destroyed more than 2,500 homes in the northern city.

But there are unavoidable risks paper-clipped to twenty years of fighting wildfires and breathing in all that smoke.

“You feel it – especially after a long season – you feel it in your lungs, you feel it in your body. It takes a while to clear it out,” he said of the smoke.

“You have to sacrifice a lot. Being in that smoke every day is not healthy. You are also working twelve- to fifteen-hour days; you’re working up to 24 days in a row,” said Larson.

“It takes a grind on your body, a grind on your relationships and your mental health as well.”

Click to play video: 'Alberta wildfires: Officials hope measures will reduce risk of human-caused fires over May long weekend'

Alberta wildfires: Officials hope measures will reduce risk of human-caused fires over May long weekend

His health was a big reason the former Alberta wildland fighter decided to hang up his hat.

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“I’ve had some friends who have had some long-term impacts, some friends who aren’t with us today,” said Larson, who also wrote a book about his experiences.

“As a seasonal firefighter in Alberta, you don’t get any pension or any sick days. That’s one of the big reasons I don’t work there anymore; I needed to look into the future and if I did get sick, I needed to be able to take care of myself.”

According to a 2019 report done by the World Health Organization, more than 20 per cent of all cardiovascular deaths are caused by air pollution.

There is a growing fear that as global temperatures rise, those numbers will too.

“We do know that climate change is making extreme weather worse and it’s making other things that affect our health worse too, like air pollution and heat waves,” said Dr. Stephen Wilton, a Calgary cardiologist and volunteer with the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment.

“All those things are contributing to a substantial number of increased deaths and illnesses that could be preventable,” said Wilton.

Click to play video: 'How is climate change impacting our health?'

How is climate change impacting our health?

“When we think about heart disease, we think about smoking and diabetes being big risk factors,” said Dr. Wilton.

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“What we now know, at least when we look at the whole world, is actually air pollution is as strong a factor for heart disease as smoking, which is surprising to a lot of people.”

But it comes as no surprise to those who have been raising the alarm for decades about climate-related health conditions.

“In 2003 when 70,000 people died in Europe in a heat wave it was projected that if we did not reduce carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere significantly, by 2025 these kinds of years would occur (every) two or three years. Well it’s 2023,” said Robert Sanford, Global Water Futures Chair, Water and Climate Security at United Nations University.

“What we thought would happen is now happening — climate change is here and it’s affecting us and it will affect our physical and mental health for decades to come,” said Sanford.

Sanford said not only are people at higher risk for disease and heat exhaustion, but evacuations and loss of homes are damaging to mental well-being.

Harold Larson understands this clearly as he thinks of those working to put out the fires.

“They might have a long road ahead of them but it will eventually end. Just make sure you are keeping yourself safe and do your best to stay as healthy as you can,” said Larson to firefighters.

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It’s vital advice from someone who spent years in the fire himself.

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