Harmful effects of wildfire smoke are immediate and could make COVID-19 symptoms worse, UBC study warns

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A study by University of British Columbia researchers underscores the immediate, harmful health effects of wildfire smoke and says there are concerning implications during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The study, published in the online journal Environmental Health Perspectives, explores a link between high levels of fine particulates in wildfire smoke and increased ambulance dispatches.

The research shows a jump in ambulance dispatches related to respiratory or cardiovascular conditions occurs within one hour of exposure to smoke.

Among diabetics, the study says the odds of health complications increase within 48 hours of exposure to fine particulates.

The researchers say the smoke has the potential to make viral respiratory infections such as COVID-19 even more severe.

The Bish Creek Wildfire near Kitimat burned out of control in May. (B.C. Wildfire Service)

Lead author Jiayun Angela Yao says rapid public health action to limit smoke exposure is vital because the pandemic remains a serious threat as wildfire season approaches.

“Anyone with pre-existing heart and lung disease and diabetes is especially vulnerable and should consider purchasing air cleaners and ensuring that they have adequate supplies of medication at home,” Yao said in a release.

“It’s alarming to see just how quickly fine particulate matter seems to affect the respiratory and cardiovascular system. And the acute effects for people with diabetes is relatively new to us,” said Yao.

She conducted her research while completing a PhD at the UBC School of Population and Public Health.

Researchers used statistical modelling to examine ambulance dispatches, paramedic assessments and hospital admissions for respiratory, circulatory and diabetic conditions related to high levels of fine particulates during wildfire seasons in B.C. from 2010 to 2015.

The study was supported by the Australian Research Council Linkage Program and the British Columbia Lung Association.

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