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Smoke billows from the Donnie Creek wildfire burning north of Fort St. John, B.C. on July 2.Noah Berger/The Associated Press

He could well be “the face of the climate crisis in Canada.”

Nine-year-old Carter Vigh died last week of asthma, his usually treatable condition made deadly by wildfire smoke that blanketed his home community of 100 Mile House, B.C.

This prompted the B.C. Coroners Service to issue a public safety bulletin, along with expressing the hope that the “heartbreaking loss” would create greater public awareness about the dangers of wildfire smoke, extreme heat and other climate-related risks.

Carter’s death, sadly, is a harbinger of things to come.

It’s a grim reminder that the smoke that has now become ubiquitous because of wildfires raging from coast to coast is not benign. Neither is the extreme heat that is helping to transform vast forests into tinderboxes.

More than 10 million hectares have already gone up in smoke in Canada this year, with hundreds of fires still raging and the worst of the fire season yet to come. The quantity of smoke produced is formidable, and can carry for hundreds of kilometres.

Smoke, and especially the particulate matter it creates, poses a significant health risk for vulnerable populations like children, the elderly, and especially those with chronic respiratory conditions such as asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

“What Carter’s story tells me is that we are woefully unprepared for the health impacts of climate change as a society and in the health care system,” Dr. Melissa Lem, president of the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment (CAPE), told The Canadian Press.

CAPE has long warned about the effects of climate change on the health of Canadians and has promoted preventive measures like reducing our reliance on fossil fuels, investing in green technologies and strengthening our environmental protections. Maybe now more people will start to listen.

More than 7 million people a year already die prematurely from indoor and outdoor air pollution, according to the World Health Organization. About 677,000 of those deaths are attributable to wildfire smoke, and children under five account for 39 per cent of wildfire-related mortality.

Those already disturbing statistics will invariably grow worse as the impacts of climate change ripple around the globe.

Yet, most of our research on air pollution focuses on smog, which is produced by emissions from industry and motor vehicles. That form of pollution has actually fallen sharply in recent years, especially in high-income countries that have imposed emission standards.

But the gains are being offset by the growing threat of wildfire smoke, and we don’t know nearly enough about its health consequences, especially in the long term.

Many Canadians have already experienced the unpleasant burning of the eyes and coughing caused by the haze. But the most dangerous part of wildfire smoke is invisible: the particles that can enter our lungs and even our bloodstreams.

What are the long-term effects of this on our lungs, hearts and kidneys? We know it won’t be good.

Already there is evidence that not only does it exacerbate asthma and COPD, it increases rates of stroke, heart disease, and low-weight births.

We know, too, that children are more at risk because they are smaller and their developing organs are susceptible to permanent damage.

Then there are the social, emotional and mental health impacts, as smoke forces people indoors, leading to cancellations of summer camps, sporting events, and more.

Eco-anxiety is also taking its toll, as people – especially young people – despair about the state of the planet’s health.

Wildfires are but the tip of the (melting) iceberg.

Smoke is even more deadly when paired with extreme heat.

In the summer of 2021, B.C. sweltered under a heat dome, one that claimed 619 lives in a single week, most of them elders.

Changing climate patterns are also facilitating the spread of deadly infectious diseases like malaria, fuelling famines, and sparking climate disasters such as floods.

Last year in Pakistan, more than 30 million people were displaced by floods, and more than 1,700 died. The poor, from residents of low-income countries to low-income groups in wealthy countries (such as Indigenous communities), also bear more of the risk.

With temperatures and water levels rising, some metropolises could become uninhabitable. Mass displacements will have dramatic effects on global health.

The growing number of climate-related crises, from wildfires to floods, underscore the need to protect the vulnerable, beginning with children.

But the smoke that fills the air should also remind us that it is imperative that we act to slow climate change, which, future pandemics notwithstanding, remains the world’s single greatest public-health challenge.

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