Wildfire smoke and its impact to life and lungs

While smoke from Pacific Northwest wildfires may be transient in nature, it’s a topic never far from the mind of Dr. Sarah Henderson, a senior scientist with Environmental Health Services at BC Centre for Disease Control.

“Everybody is impacted by wildfire smoke, but for people at high risk, that impact can be life-threatening,” said Dr. Henderson about the toxic haze that is more and more frequently leaving people with asthma and COPD across western North America gasping for breath.

“We’ve even seen cases of cardiac arrest because exposure to this smoke can have knock-down effects on the rest of the body.”

Through her lens of applied public health, Dr. Henderson’s work spans a wide range of topics, including air pollution from wildfire smoke, residential wood smoke, industry, road dust, and emissions from industry and vehicles.

As a scientist, Dr. Henderson brings this body of knowledge to LAH. Her knowledge informs research priorities related to air quality and health, expanding what is known about the connection between inhalant threats and lung health.

But Dr. Henderson wasn’t always so focused on the public’s wellbeing. For a short while, her career focused on ensuring emissions from the oil and gas projects were low enough to keep the sector in business. On one particular project, the penny dropped.

“These pollutants — these things we were trying to control — would have health effects once they made it into the environment,” she said. “That’s when I started thinking about these trade-offs and what they meant. That was really eye-opening.”

The epiphany caused a career re-think, pointing Dr. Henderson toward a career in public health.

She is currently collaborating with LAH on a survey to evaluate the reach of public messaging created to inform people about the impacts of wildfire smoke on health. While air quality index reports and smoky skies advisories are regularly distributed to share this information, no one has ever before measured the efficacy of these tools.

“We really want to understand where people are getting their information, how they’re getting it, and if they’re understanding it,” she said. “This will help to ensure that we’re getting the right information out there to the people who really need it most.”