People in Whistler, B.C., were being advised to stay in cool spaces and refrain from outdoor activities as the health risk of smoke-related pollution from nearby wildfires reached maximum levels Tuesday.
Environment Canada's air-quality health index hit its highest measure, 10, in the popular resort town and came with a warning about exposure to particulates, especially for people with respiratory problems.
It's the latest in a spate of air-quality advisories for urban areas across the country – including Greater Vancouver, Regina and Saskatoon – where nearby fires have prompted health officials to warn the very young and elderly to stay near air conditioners – which filter the air as well as cool it – and to advise asthmatics to keep inhalers in hand.
At a news conference Tuesday, James Lu, a medical health officer for Vancouver Coastal Health, advised the public in Whistler and Squamish, B.C., to stay indoors until the air quality improves. For the most at-risk populations –including those with chronic lung or heart conditions and diabetes – he recommended limiting exercise, keeping cool and hydrated and taking regular medication if needed.
Michael Brauer, a public health expert from the University of British Columbia, explained that a short-term episode of poor air quality could trigger a heart attack, stroke or lung inflammation for people with pre-existing heart or lung disease.
"It could become quite debilitating, including death," he said.
But Vancouver Coastal Health said it had not seen any increases in people being hospitalized as a result of air quality.
Saskatchewan's chief medical health officer, Saqib Shahab, said the smoke wafting down to urban centres from the province's northern fires is not the region's first brush with air-quality advisories. He encouraged people to know their risk factors.
"We have good air-monitoring systems in place and we encourage people to use that," he said.
The Ontario Lung Association has advised the more than 2.4 million Ontarians living with chronic lung disease to keep a close eye on air quality as smoke from western wildfires starts to drift across the province.
Mr. Brauer also cautioned that long-term exposure to air pollution can make people more likely to develop asthma, chronic lung or heart disease in the future.
But "assuming this doesn't last for too long … I wouldn't expect any long-lasting impacts, and any effects on people with good health should be pretty minor," he said.
To put things in perspective, he pointed out that while Vancouver's pollution levels on Sunday and Monday were 10 times higher than on a normal day in the mountain-lined city, the air quality was comparable to that of a typical day for millions of people in Beijing, and just five times higher than a bad day in Los Angeles or a smoggy day in Toronto.
"That's a routine day in some of the more polluted places in the world," he said.