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Experts say 'plan ahead' as wildfire smoke returns to Waterloo Region sky

Environment Canada says no significant impact on air quality is expected this week
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FILE PHOTO - Smoke from forest fires has thrown a large area of Ontario under a thick haze and given the sun and moon orange-red tints.

Wildfire smoke is once again looming high above Waterloo Region, as almost 150 wildfires continue to burn in northwestern Ontario.

It's the second stretch of deep red sunrises and sunsets, haze, and warnings of possible decreased air quality.

"In the case of wildfires, we're talking about fine particulate matter, that upon inhalation can go deep into the lungs and cause inflammation and other health impacts," explained Dr. Hind Al-Abadleh, professor of chemistry at Laurier University and chair of the Environment Division for the Chemical Institute of Canada. The air quality index provided by Environment Canada takes that particulate matter into account, but it's expected to stay in the low-risk range in the coming days.

"We're not expecting those concentrations to make their way down to the surface," said Warning Preparedness Meteorologist Steven Flisfeder with Environment Canada. "If the situation does change later in the week, some symptoms could be irritation to the throat, coughing, it could be irritating to the eyes as well. So, things to look out for for sure, especially for people with respiratory and cardiac illness."

During the last stretch of wildfire smoke haze last week, there was no resulting increase in hospitalizations at Grand River Hospital, Cambridge Memorial Hospital, or St. Mary's General Hospital.

Air quality risk will be higher the closer you are to the fires, and there are long and short-term effects depending on the duration of exposure.

"If we only get these episodes two, three times during the year, and we take effort not to ignite fires in our backyards for example, and expose ourselves to these particles, then we would see -- for a healthy adult -- the ability of the body to get rid of the effects of the inhalation," said Al-Abadleh.

Al-Abadleh noted that scientists have been warning of the impact of climate change for years, including more frequent and extreme temperatures and conditions -- such as dry, hot spells -- which can lead to more forest fires.

There's more that you can do other than reducing your wildfire smoke inhalation.

"Be active on the political arena to make sure that our elected parliament ... knows our priorities, that we would like to lower our emissions, because that will not only help us on the short term by having better air quality, but will also minimize the impact of long-term climate change which was exacerbated by burning fossil fuels to begin with," she said. You can also consider taking forms of active transportation, investing in a mask that filters fine particulate matter, and getting an energy audit on your home.

Another key tool is optimism.

"Educate yourself about air pollution, air quality, and the air quality index, and be optimistic that we have things we can do at our end that will help us improve environmental emissions around us," said Al-Abadleh.

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