Expect every year to be ‘awful’: Experts weigh how to protect B.C. public from wildfire smoke

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If the last few years are any indication, wildfire smoke is becoming a fact of life in B.C. — and with that comes the inevitable questions about how it’s affecting our health.

As it turns out, the experts still have nearly as many questions as average British Columbians.

On Wednesday, scientists from across North America gathered in Vancouver at a workshop organized by the B.C. Lung Association to share what they’ve learned so far and what they still need to figure out.

One message came out loud and clear — the changing climate means we can expect longer and more severe fire seasons in the future, and we need to do what we can to protect public health.

« We need to go into every wildfire season expecting it to be awful, because if we do that then we’ll be ready for whatever comes at us, » Sarah Henderson, senior scientist at the B.C. Centre for Disease Control, told the conference.

Henderson laid out some of the research findings. Living in smoky conditions during the wildfire season might cause lung irritation, trigger asthma and bring increased risk of dying from a stroke or from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

During the record-breaking summers of 2017 and 2018, researchers measured a 40 per cent increase in people needing Ventolin inhalers — commonly used for breathing problems — and an 18.6 per cent increase in doctor visits for asthma, Henderson said.

Millions in additional health care

Those poor health outcomes can impact society in other ways, too. When a group of researchers looked into the health effects of a 2001 wildfire that burned for seven days in Alberta, they estimated that smoke inhalation accounted for an additional $10-$12 million in health care costs.

But the actual contents of wildfire smoke and its effects on humans can vary widely depending on what type of tree or plant matter is burning, if the fire is smouldering or flaming, the weather conditions and distance from the fire.

And we don’t have enough information about how the smoke affects babies in utero, infants, pregnant women, or about the long-term effects of repeated exposure. 

« We know almost nothing about the mental health impacts, beyond anecdotes, » Henderson said.

The long-term effects are particularly concerning when it comes to those who spend their time closest to the source — the firefighters who head out to the front lines every summer. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is currently studying a cohort of these men and women, but it’ll take a few more years before data is available, the conference heard.

Researchers are studying the long-term effects of wildfire smoke on firefighters. (Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press)

John Balmes, a professor at the University of California’s School of Public Health, pointed out that firefighters are often exposed to toxic gases that don’t reach the rest of the population, including carbon monoxide. At the same time, they generally don’t wear respirators or masks because the equipment isn’t practical for the job and can even melt onto their faces.

« We actually don’t have an effective way to protect the wildland firefighters, » Balmes said. « We need new technology. »

The overarching message of Wednesday’s meeting was that there’s an urgent need for more research and new strategies for mitigating damage to human health from wildfires.

« We need to change the conversation about smoke. There’s this deep desire for these things to go away and not come back again, » Henderson said.

« But we will have more bad wildfire seasons — we may have worse wildfire seasons. »

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Canadian party leaders, politicians weigh in on the signing of NAFTA 2.0

Canadian politicians weigh in on the signing of a renegotiated NAFTA agreement in Buenos Aires, Argentina, this morning.

There’s much more work to do in lowering trade barriers and in fostering growth that benefits everyone.  But reaching a new free trade agreement with the United States and Mexico is a major step for our economy. Canadians got here because Team Canada was driven by the interests of the middle class.  Free and fair trade leads to more and better-paying middle-class jobs for more people.  And the benefits of trade must be broadly and fairly shared.  That is what modernizing NAFTA achieves, and that is why it was always so important to get this new agreement done right.

— Prime Minister Justin Trudeau

« The Americans are counting their victories in what they got from Canada and Trudeau is counting his victories in what he didn’t have to give away… This deal includes a cap, a limit to what Canadian agricultural producers can sell to other countries. Not the U.S., not to Mexico, but to other countries. That is devastating to our agricultural communities. It’s unprecedented for a government, for a prime minister to agree, in order to please the Americans, not to sell to other countries so that they can sell, so that American farmers can fill that market. … This deal is not better than what we had going into these talks. There’s no gains for Canada. It’s all concessions, no victories. »

— Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer

« Trudeau has just sacrificed tens of thousands of good jobs in Canada. He has given in to Donald Trump and given up the last lever Canada had to protect farmers and tens of thousands of workers in Canada’s aluminum and steel industries. The Trudeau government promised repeatedly that it would defend Canada’s supply management system and fight against Trump’s illegal tariffs, but instead he has dealt a devastating blow to supply management and signed away any leverage we had to stop the tariffs. »

—NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh

« Trudeau lied to dairy producers. He promised them he would never sign an agreement that gave the Americans the right to decide how we organize our production. He signed that agreement this morning. He promised that he’d never let Donald Trump stop our producers from selling their surpluses on the global market. He did that. The Liberals’ word means nothing. »

—Bloc Quebecois international trade critic Gabriel Ste-Marie

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Chiefs of police weigh in on readiness for legal marijuana

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The president of the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police will speak about police readiness with recreational marijuana set to become legal on Wednesday.

CBC will stream the press conference with Vancouver Police Chief Adam Palmer live at 11 a.m. PT, 2 p.m. ET. 

The association has recommended that 2,000 officers receive specialized training in drug recognition in order to meet the federal government’s promise of cracking down on drug-impaired driving.

But 10 days ago a senior government official said only 833 Canadian police officers have been trained as drug-recognition experts.

While the government has introduced three new criminal offences involving cannabis-impaired driving, they all require a positive blood test from a suspect before a conviction.

Most Canadian police forces are not equipped to draw a blood sample at a police station.

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How long should police officers abstain from pot before going to work? Researchers weigh in

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Twenty-eight days. That’s how long members of the RCMP and Toronto police have been ordered to abstain from smoking or vaping recreational pot before reporting for duty. Calgary police officers won’t be allowed to use cannabis at all while off the job.

Such prohibitions have sparked a growing firestorm, with the national association representing front-line officers calling the policies « offensive » and the union for Toronto cops describing the ban as « ill-contrived » and « arbitrary. »

But is demanding that Mounties and municipal police officers forego a soon-to-be legal substance for such a lengthy period justified, when there’s no similar policy governing alcohol or potentially mind-altering prescription medications?

That depends on how much a person consumes and how often, said Dr. James MacKillop, co-director of the Centre for Medicinal Cannabis Research at McMaster University.

« So if you smoke today, within a few days it will be entirely out of your system because a single instance may be longer-lasting than alcohol but it still nonetheless will be metabolized and will be excreted, » MacKillop said from Hamilton.

« If a person is a regular, frequent user, then that window gets much longer because cannabis is what’s called lipophilic, which means it’s absorbed into the body’s fat cells and then it leeches back out from the fat tissue into the bloodstream. And that’s why it’s also detectable in urine, » he said.

« So if a person’s a heavy user, it may indeed be detectable for up to a month. »

MacKillop said a number of studies provide evidence of lingering effects of cannabis, including one that found reductions in cognitive performance in active pot users compared to non-users, which returned to normal levels with protracted abstinence.

« It’s not clear that any of those chronic effects on cognition persist after a person stops, but a 28-day washout period would be expected to eliminate virtually all of the cognitive consequences, » he said.

« That’s a high bar, but optimal performance from the police or the military or airline pilots or other people in highly safety-sensitive jobs is very desirable. So it’s hard for me to disagree with policies that prioritize safety. »

‘Super cautious’

However, Rielle Capler, a researcher with the B.C. Centre On Substance Use, considers such lengthy periods of pre-work abstinence unreasonable based on how long the active psychoactive component of cannabis and breakdown products known as metabolites can affect the brain.

« While the metabolites might still be present in the urine or blood that long, there is no connection to actual impairment, » she said Friday from Vancouver.

« Impairment with cannabis depends on the mode of use, how much you use and your tolerance, » said Capler, who specializes in cannabis policy. « If you’re inhaling it, the peak impairment is about one to two hours and the impairment dissipates after three to four hours.

« If you’re ingesting it, then you might start to feel impairment after an hour or two. It might peak at three or four hours, and be in your system for six to eight hours in terms of it having an effect, » she added.

« If you wanted to be super cautious and conservative, you could say no consumption eight hours before work. »

Capler maintains the police forces are creating a prohibition for a legal substance without the backing of scientific evidence, and that they should carefully examine the research literature on marijuana-induced impairment and revamp their policies based on the findings.

Despite recreational cannabis being previously illegal, many Canadians have been toking or vaping the drug, she said. « And that’s why we’re changing the laws to coincide more with reality and not criminalize people for something that is happening.

« We don’t want anybody impaired on the job — that’s very important, and I think that’s always been important.

« It doesn’t become more important after Oct. 17. »

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