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Chief public health officer sticks to his message
Dr. Andre Corriveau says long-term effect of smoke exposure unlikely in healthy people, others 'risking serious complications'

John McFadden
Northern News Services
Published Friday, August 8, 2014

Pregnant women in the NWT could be risking low-weight babies if they don't limit their exposure to the forest fire smoke plaguing much of the territory.

That was just one of the messages Dr. Andre Corriveau, chief public health officer for the NWT, delivered at a news conference Wednesday.

Corriveau said he hasn't wavered in his advice since the forest fire situation became serious almost two months ago.

He added most people won't see long-term health effects from the smoke, but that he's still telling even healthy residents to limit their exposure to the smoke when possible.

"Everybody will suffer some lung irritation after eight weeks of forest fire smoke, but healthy people can recover from that." he said.

Corriveau said elderly people, those with lung and heart problems, children and pregnant women should go out of their way to avoid breathing in the smoke.

"People who have respiratory issues should really be taking measures, if they haven't done so already, to avoid the smoke," he said. "That includes installing an air purifier in the home and keeping windows closed."

NNSL photo/graphic

Dr. Andre Corriveau, the chief public health officer for the NWT, answers questions at a news conference dealing with smoke Wednesday. Corriveau said despite the almost two months of forest fires in the NWT, healthy people likely won't suffer long-term breathing problems as long as they limit their exposure to the smoke. - John McFadden/NNSL photo

Corriveau said that because the smoke has been a problem in the NWT all summer, those people with breathing problems are risking serious complications and could be in a life-threatening situation if they don't avoid the smoke.

"I myself have cut out my five-kilometre daily runs while the smoke continues to linger," he said. "They held a (half) marathon last month in Yellowknife. My advice would've been to postpone that until our air quality was better."

The doctor said for people who are thinking about quitting tobacco, this would be the perfect time to kick the nicotine habit.

"The air quality is poor anyhow, so now would be the optimum time to stop smoking," said Corriveau.

The doctor said he's had a number of inquiries about whether wearing a surgical mask would help.

"Unless you have a top-of-the-line surgical mask, it won't help and could even make things worse," he said.

Corriveau added cheap surgical masks restrict breathing and don't filter out the fine smoke particulate.

"I'm not even 100 per cent sure where you can get the good masks, but no, wearing a mask like they hand out at the doctor's office won't do the job on this smoke," he said.

Corriveau said his colleagues in the medical field have told him they are seeing more patients with respiratory problems this summer.

"It's not surprising, with the length of this forest fire season, that would be the case. More people are having a hard time breathing," he said.

Corriveau suggested employers who have people working outside should consider giving them longer or extra breaks on smoky days.

As for the firefighters themselves, Corriveau said he had no specific advice.

"They get their safety information from the Workers Safety and Compensation Commission."

Postponed surgeries

Meanwhile, several elective surgeries had to be postponed last week at Stanton Territorial Hospital because of the smell of smoke in the operating rooms.

Dr. Anna Reid, the medial director at Stanton, said 10 or fewer elective procedures had to be rescheduled after staff noticed the smell of smoke on a couple of occasions last week.

"We were always ready for emergency surgeries - that was never an issue," said Reid. "Our air intake system is a good one, but it takes in air from the outside and that's how it ended up smelling of smoke. That's happened inside many Yellowknife buildings this summer."

Reid said the hospital always err on the side of caution when it comes to exposing patients to smoke.

"There's obviously anesthetic gases in the operating rooms as well, so that's another safety concern," she said. "One of the patients who had surgery postponed was from Gameti.

"However, they couldn't get a flight out (of Gameit) because of the forest fire smoke. So that was another reason for an operation to be postponed."

Reid said there have been no medevac delays that she is aware of due to flights being grounded because of the smoke.

"The medevac program is actually overseen by the Department of Transportation, but there have been no issues that I'm aware of," she said.

Reid said there have been no problems with operating room supplies including drugs because of the highway closures.

"We have enough supplies on hand, but if that became an issue, we'd have whatever we were in need of flown up," she said.

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