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Poor air quality remains as Nova Scotia wildfires continue to burn: officials


People living near raging wildfires in Nova Scotia are being advised not to spend too much time outdoors because of the health risks caused by smoke in the air.

Since Tuesday, Environment Canada has issued a series of special air quality statements warning of a reduction in air quality in areas around Halifax and in Shelburne County, where the largest fire is burning.

Dr. Meredith Chiasson, a respirologist at the Halifax Infirmary, said in an interview Wednesday that drifting smoke poses problems for specific people, including those with heart and lung problems and those who deal with chronic health issues such as asthma.

Chiasson said pregnant women, older adults and children are also a concern in such conditions.

"It's not a good idea to be spending a great deal of time outdoors in these conditions," she said. "You still see people out exercising, which I cringe at. Our lungs are very vulnerable so any damage that's done from prolonged inhalation of these small particles that we find in the smoke could cause permanent damage."

While people closest to the fire need to be cautious, Chiasson noted that weather conditions and winds can carry the effects of smoke great distances.

"Last week we actually got smoke from the Alberta fires that came through the jet stream, so thinking that you are safe just because you are not in the proximity of the fire is false," Chiasson said.

Adding to the concern, she said, are fires in urban areas where the smoke can carry particles from various materials.

"You do have added elements, plastic and other materials that are burning. It is more worrisome that it's not just wood that's burning."

People who spend prolonged periods outdoors near a wildfire should wear a respirator, Chiasson said, while those further distances away can wear an N-95 mask. "Regular cloth masks are not sufficient," she said.

Symptoms of smoke exposure can range from burning eyes, sore throats, coughs and runny noses in healthier people, to more catastrophic consequences for those with health conditions.

"Someone who has asthma or COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease), they may start to feel really short of breath, and could cough and wheeze to the point that they may end up in emergency," said Chiasson.

Still, as of late Tuesday, the province's largest emergency department at the QEII Health Sciences Centre in Halifax hadn't seen an increase in patients suffering from smoke-related respiratory problems, according to Dr. Janet MacIntyre, the clinical site chief.

"But with the changing weather conditions we do anticipate that might change," said MacIntyre. "There may be more exposure to smoke and exacerbation of chronic illnesses related to that exposure in the coming days."

Bob Robichaud, a warning preparedness meteorologist with Environment and Climate Change Canada, said Tuesday that weather conditions expected to persist until at least Friday mean that air quality is likely to remain a problem.

Robichaud said the worst times will be at night and early morning, when clear skies and cooler temperatures keep smoke closer to the ground.

"If possible stay indoors keeping windows and doors closed and limiting the time outdoors especially during times we know when air quality is going to be poor," said Robichaud.

As of late Wednesday there were 14 active fires across Nova Scotia with three burning out of control.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 31, 2023. Top Stories


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