Study finds short-term exposure to smoke from 2016 Fort McMurray wildfires in Alberta affected lung function

Equipment more sensitive than a conventional spirometer was able to detect lung damage

A police officer walks past burned homes in Fort McMurray, Alberta, Canada, May 5, 2016. Photo AFP / Alberta RCMP / HO

A health study of Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) officers who were deployed to Alberta, Canada in 2016 during the Horse River Fire in Fort McMurray found that their airway function was compromised in the first three months after deployment. An analysis of health data from 218 officers found that the small airways in their lungs had undergone structural changes after deployment, potentially increasing their risk of respiratory disease in the future. The median duration of agent exposure was eight days.

“We can’t tell from our study whether this is long-lasting damage, but we know from other studies that if people are exposed to high levels of particles in the air, they are more likely to suffer lasting lung damage,” said Paige Lacy, professor of medicine at the University of Alberta and former director of research at the Alberta Respiratory Centre.

The Horse River Fire prompted the largest evacuation in Canadian history, with more than 80,000 people quickly evacuated from the community as the fires encroached on the town. Hundreds of RCMP members were dispatched to the community to assist in the evacuation and to secure the area in the following days. The fire burned 589,552 hectares (1.4 million acres) in 2016 and destroyed 2,400 structures. Extreme fire behavior created flashes in the pyrocumulonimbus cloud atop the smoke column that sparked a number of new wildfires 40 kilometers (26 miles) ahead of the main wildfire front, a report says published in June 2017.

Horse River fire in Alberta
These two fires started around the same time on May 1, 2016 near Fort McMurray, Alberta, Canada. On the left is the MMD-004 fire inside the Fort McMurray city limits. The Horse River Fire, often called the Fort McMurray Fire, is on the right.

Subtle changes in lung function detected
The lung function data was collected as part of a larger study by Synergy Respiratory and Cardiac Care looking at the health of RCMP officers dispatched to the Fort McMurray fire. According to the researchers, the subtle differences in lung function that were found were not measurable using traditional lung function tests and could only be observed using more sensitive instruments. The researchers used both spirometry and body plethysmography testing methods.

“The small airways are potentially more vulnerable, and it’s impossible for a spirometer (a device commonly used to measure lung function) to detect the progression of their damage over time,” said Subhabrata Moitra, first author of the study and post-doc. Fellow in the Division of Pulmonary Medicine at the University of Alberta. “So if we use very sensitive instruments, we can immediately get signals if there are acute but subtle changes caused by physiological factors or occupational or environmental hazards.”

The researchers noted that because the officers only came for testing once after deployment, they were unable to observe any potential recovery of lung function or measure long-term damage. .

The study authors emphasized the importance of having a health surveillance program in place so that responders who are exposed to such hazards can have their health monitored.

Investigation finds firefighters also complained of respiratory problems
An investigation found that some firefighters who battled the blaze in Fort McMurray also battled respiratory and mental health issues.

Below is an excerpt from a CBC news article from 2017:

The University of Alberta study surveyed 355 firefighters and found that a ‘very large proportion’ of them complained of respiratory problems, including coughing, shortness of breath, wheezing and wheezing. chest tightness immediately after the fire.

“When we saw them later, probably about one in five of them still had chest problems that they thought were caused or made worse by the fire,” said Nicola Cherry, the epidemiologist at the head of the study.

And they struggle with more than just physical ailments – mental health issues affect one in six study participants.

“When we collected this information, it was early days and people might develop bigger issues over time,” Cherry said.

Our opinion
It is likely that wildland firefighters are routinely exposed to much higher smoke concentrations and for longer periods of time than RCMP officers in Fort McMurray. It is important that agencies that employ wildland firefighters establish a health monitoring program that includes lung function testing using methods such as body plethysmography that are much more sensitive than a conventional spirometer.

Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildfires for 33 years, he continues to learn and strives to be a student of fire. See all articles by Bill Gabbert

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