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'Lifetime of worse health': B.C. doctor warns about long-term impacts of wildfire smoke

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Southern British Columbians may see smoky skies from wildfires burning in the northeastern part of the province over the weekend and one local doctor is warning of the potential long-term health risks associated with that poor air quality.

According to FireSmoke Canada, which is operated by the weather forecast research team at the University of British Columbia, southern B.C. including Metro Vancouver and Vancouver Island could see some smoky skies in the region starting Friday evening. 

Dr. Melissa Lem spoke to CTV Morning Live Thursday about the health impacts of wildfire smoke.

"The high and very high risk air quality events get a lot of attention but the negative health impacts from wildfire smoke also start to build up at lower levels," she said.

Lem explained about two-thirds of patient visits to doctors for asthma happen when the air quality risk is "in the low and moderate range," which is when smoke and haze might not be visible.

Research is also beginning to emerge about the long-term impacts of wildfire smoke. Some of the most alarming results, Lem said, were the impacts on babies and kids.

Lem explained that 30,000 children who were in utero during the 2017 wildfire season were followed up with by researchers.

"If their moms lived in areas with bad smoke, they were more likely to be born premature and with low birth weight," Lem said. "Even when they grew older, these kids get bronchitis, laryngitis and croup more often. So these smoke events, unfortunately, could be setting kids up for a lifetime of worse health. And that's why it's so important for all of us to have measures in place to protect us."

While Lem said spending time outside is typically good for a person's health, for those with medical conditions like asthma, heart disease or diabetes, it might be better to stay inside when smoke is present.

"If your mental health is suffering, you could consider putting on an N95 mask and heading out into a local green space," she said.

Those who are at higher risk should consider limiting their time outside when the air quality index reaches four or higher, Lem said, adding the rating goes up to 10.

During poor air quality events it's also important to make sure indoor air quality is also safe, Lem advised. Keeping windows closed and using air purifiers with high efficiency particulate air, or HEPA, filters can help.

"We want to avoid creating air pollution inside our homes," she said. "That means avoiding, for example, burning candles or vacuuming and also using gas stoves." 

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