Calls to a national asthma helpline have doubled during an intense wildfire season that has blanketed cities, including London, with smoke.
Asthma Canada president and chief executive Jeff Beach said the organization is receiving twice as many inquires to its free helpline than it usually would at this time of year, as many areas that do not normally contend with wildfire smoke feel the impact of far-away fires.
“The last few months have been very difficult for people with asthma and other respiratory health conditions. We’re seeing a lot of those concerns coming to light through the inquires we get from patients and families,” Beach said.
“This is top of mind for us and our partners and for people living with asthma.”
The helpline, an Asthma Canada callback service that also has an email option for users, is staffed by certified respiratory educators who can answer questions and provide guidance to asthma sufferers, including newly diagnosed patients.
The flood of inquiries to the helpline comes as many cities in Canada – including ones that don’t often see wildfire smoke pollution, such as Toronto – contend with poor air quality this summer.
Environment Canada and London-area public health officials issued several air quality alerts last month as smoke from wildfires in northeastern Ontario and northwestern Quebec wafted into the region.
At its worst last month, the air quality was so poor London city hall closed Storybook Gardens and city-run sports fields and cancelled one of its free outdoor movie nights as a precaution. City officials also opened several community centres for people looking for a break from the smokey air outside.
At times, the smoke was visible in the air, causing a haze over many parts of the city.
Area hospitals watch, wait for fallout amid LHSC-St. Joe’s split
London hospital executives: Housing the homeless is health care
London’s air quality reached the high-risk level, seven or higher on the 10-point scale, at least five times last month, data from Air Quality Ontario says. The city has not seen air quality reach that level so far in July, the data set shows.
Despite the recent stretch of poor air quality, area hospitals are not reporting a significant increase in the number of patients with smoke-related breathing issues or complaints.
London Health Sciences Centre said it has not seen an influx of people arriving in its adult or pediatric emergency rooms with smoke-related issues. St. Thomas Elgin General Hospital is not reporting a spike in ER visits related to the smokey conditions either.
St. Joseph’s Health Care London said it has seen patients come to its urgent care department with pre-existing conditions that have been exacerbated by the wildfire smoke and extreme heat and humidity.
“COPD and asthma are most common but even some seasonal allergies worsened on certain days this past month when air quality has been poor,” St. Joseph’s said in a statement.
While area hospitals have not yet seen significant increases in the number of patients with smoke-related concerns coming through their doors, Asthma Canada executive director Jeff Beach said emergency room statistics only capture one piece of the wildfire’s impact on people’s health.
“Hospital data is one measure to use, but certainly there are others. We know from what we’re hearing from patients, what our partner organizations are hearing, that the impact is much larger than what is seen at the hospital level,” Beach said, adding the widespread wildfire fallout this summer is a reminder of how important air quality is.
With months of hot weather and the potential for more wildfires to come, Beach urged asthma sufferers in particular to take their condition seriously.
“Asthma tends to be a disease that people normalize and minimize. . . . A lot of people think if they have their puffers with them they’ll be fine, but that’s not always the case. We want people to pay attention,” he said.
“We tell people to ensure they are following their prescribed medications properly and speak with their health care provider to have their asthma re-assessed if it’s been a while.”