It might be time to pull out those N95 masks you became so familiar with during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. A respiratory therapist says they can be key to dealing with the wildfire smoke blanketing Manitoba.

The current air conditions in the province are "certainly something to be concerned about," said Neil Johnston, president and CEO of the Manitoba Lung Association.

"People who do have health concerns need to be particularly vigilant."

For the second consecutive day, a special air quality statement has been issued covering nearly all of Manitoba due to smoke from forest fires in the northern Prairies and Northwest Territories.

Assiniboia Downs, Winnipeg's horse track, cancelled its races on Tuesday and the Winnipeg South End United Soccer Club cancelled some training sessions. In both cases, the poor air was cited as the reason.

Things aren't expected to be a whole lot better on Wednesday, according to Environment Canada, with varying amounts of smoke across much of southern Manitoba and "generally widespread" smoke in the north, the air quality statement says.

A map of Canada shows large areas highlighted in grey, where poor air quality is being experienced.
Areas highlighted in grey are under a special air quality statement on Wednesday. (Environment Canada)

Some improvement is expected in northern Manitoba beginning early Thursday, but areas in the south will likely have to wait until Thursday evening to see that, the weather agency said.

The fine particles in wildfire smoke can be harmful to anyone's health, even at low concentrations, the alert says. People with lung disease such as asthma, or heart disease, older adults, children, pregnant people and people who work outdoors are at higher risk of experiencing health effects.

Johnston, who is a registered respiratory therapist, says even if the sky doesn't appear too hazy, people should follow the recommendations in the air quality alert, which include reducing or stopping activities if breathing becomes uncomfortable or you feel unwell.

The best defence is staying inside with doors and windows closed and a high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) air cleaner running.

If you have to spend time outdoors, both Environment Canada and Johnston recommend using a respirator type mask, such as an N95.

"Those are the ones that can help for the small particulate matter in the air," Johnston said.

Close up of someone's hands holding an N95 face mask
A mask needs to be well-fitted to help filter out small particulate matter in smoky air, says Manitoba Lung Association president and CEO Neil Johnston. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

But they need to be well-fitted, so air doesn't pass through small openings between the mask and face, he added.

"Certainly, cloth masks are not effective. The blue, pleated masks might help a little bit but really they're not designed to keep out the small particles."

Long-term effects

Johnston also recommends watching for warning signs that the smoke is having an impact, such as wheeziness, tightness in the chest, heart palpitations, an increase in coughing, dizziness, or a change in sputum — either the amount or colour.

Those symptoms "can come on suddenly or they can be gradual," he said. "People need to be sort of in tune with their health situation and … seek help or shelter if the symptoms do increase."

Mild irritation and discomfort are common, and usually disappear when the smoke clears.

But the "the key part is a cough is never normal [and] wheezing in the chest is never normal," Johnston said. "Those types of things need to be investigated and there's some really good medications out there."

He also said while you may feel fine in the smoke, the effects can be cumulative.

"The fine particles can actually get through your lungs, past your lung defences and into the rest of the body, and it can cause inflammation and long-term health effects in multiple organs down the road."

Johnston applauded organizations like the race track and soccer groups for cancelling activities in light of the air quality situation.

"That's what organizations need to do, is to monitor the weather just as you would with a thunderstorm or snowstorms or whatever's coming," he said. "You're going to change your activity based on the hazards that are possible."

The latest air quality issues add to a summer where wildfire smoke has already had an impact in Manitoba.

Several alerts were issued for the province last month due to wildfires that were burning in Saskatchewan, northwestern Ontario and parts of Manitoba.

"It's definitely been earlier and more days," Johnson said. "Compound that with other allergens and it can be a double or triple whammy for some people."

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