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Measuring The Consequence Of Forest Fires On Public Health

January 28, 2013

Pollution from forest fires is impacting the health of people with asthma and other chronic obstructive lung diseases, finds a study in Biomed Central’s open access journal Environmental Health. This study uses data from pharmacies and dispensaries to measure the increase in drugs needed to alleviate symptoms associated with pollution.

Forest fires burn nearly 1000 km2 of trees in British Columbia every year. The Ministry of Environment keeps a close watch on levels of particulate matter in the air caused by these fires but it is harder to measure the impact of this pollution on the health of people unless they are admitted to hospital.

Researchers from British Columbia Centre for Disease Control and University of British Columbia used dispensary records to find out if forest fires caused an increase in use of short acting beta agonist (SABA) such as salbutamol. Salbutamol sulphate is typically used as an inhaler to relive symptoms of asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and other obstructive lung diseases.

What they found was that pollution due to forest fires increased the need for salbutamol for up to 4 days after the fire — even a relatively small increase in smoke (10µg/m3 increase in PM2.5) was associated with a 6% increase in salbutamol dispensations.

Dr Catherine Elliott, who led this study commented, “Our study shows that forest fires and pollution are impacting the health of people with chronic lung diseases. It also shows that it is possible to measure public health by monitoring dispensary databases, and that dispensary data shows effects in small populations, that have not been found in studies on other health measures such as visits to physicians’ offices. This information is often routinely collected, and available for the entire population, consequently it is possible to perform more meaningful analysis.”

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