Smoke from Canadian wildfires prompts warnings for Kentuckians, especially those who are working outdoors

By Sarah Ladd
Kentucky Lantern

Poor air quality from Canadian fires prompted a warning Thursday about potential negative health effects for Kentuckians.

Air pollution can negatively affect a person’s health, according to Rachel Keith, an associate professor of medicine at the University of Louisville and the director of human studies at the university’s Envirome Institute.

“We know that what goes into your body and what’s around your body has as much if not more impact than the genes you get,” said Keith, who is an advanced practice registered nurse with UofL Health. Environmental interactions account for most chronic illnesses, she said.

People with asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease are more likely to suffer immediately, she said, but air pollution can have long term effects on health as well.

Air pollution can trigger heart attacks, Keith said. Exposure over time can increase the risk of heart disease, some cancers and diabetes.

If people with asthma or COPD feel they need to use inhalers but it’s not helping, “and you still feel like you are having that air hunger or still having an asthma attack,” it’s time to see a doctor, Keith said.

Also keep an eye out for signs of a heart attack: pain and chest pressure, nausea, lightheadedness.

“We should still limit our outside time at these times” when air quality is really bad, Keith said. “We should limit our exposure.”

Even people not predisposed to things like heart disease can experience throat irritation, Keith said, and burning eyes.

If you must be out in poor air quality, an N95 mask can help protect your body, she said. But: “Limiting your exposure is the best prevention.”

The Washington Post reports, “From landscapers to farm laborers, many workers whose jobs require time in the outdoors have plowed on this week, even as smoke from wildfires raging in Canada has created abysmal air quality up and down the East Coast. Their predicament reveals how outdoor laborers, more than any other segment of the workforce, remain vulnerable when it comes to climate change.”

Panagis Galiatsatos, a pulmonary medicine physician at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and a spokesman for the American Lung Association, told the Post, “If it is feasible, I would encourage not working outside.” But he acknowledged that many people in the path of wildfire smoke don’t have that option: “If people have to work outdoors, by all means take the proper precautions to stay safe,” he said.

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