Analyzing whether wildfire created toxic pollution in Fort McMurray
Researcher’s analysis provided insight for both residents and firefighters of the community

Dr. Arthur Chan

February 28, 2020

Each year, wildfires burn through forests and grasslands in Canada. These fires can be started by natural causes such as lightning strikes, or through human activity, such as discarded cigarettes, vehicle exhausts or unattended campfires. In some cases, these wildfires can spread to inhabited areas where they can have devastating effects through destruction of property, threaten lives, and force mass evacuations. The after effects of such devastation can have wide-spread health effects. One ongoing concern of responders and returning residents is of the effects caused by particulate matter that may settle in homes and buildings, or that remains in the air.

This was a real concern in Fort McMurray, when a May 2016 wildfire forced 80,000 residents from their homes and communities. Long after the wildfire was extinguished, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) remained in the environment due to the combustion of wood and heavy metals. PAHs are dangerous air toxicants associated with lung cancer, and may cause cardiovascular and reproductive health problems.

Dr. Arthur Chan, associate professor in chemical engineering and applied chemistry from University of Toronto, decided to investigate the repercussions of the 2016 wildfire in Fort McMurray with his CIHR-funded study focusing on the characterization and evaluation of fire ash toxicity.

"We collected dust from the homes of 120 participants using a vacuum cleaner," said Dr. Chan. "This included samples of dust from entranceway doormats, and other areas in the home that are either frequently visited like living rooms and bedrooms, or areas that are rarely cleaned, like basements and attics."

Participants in Dr. Chan's study also answered a survey that addressed the overall structure of their homes, their heating and cooling systems, their cleaning services, and the possible renovations they may have had done after the wildfire. All dust samples collected from Fort McMurray homes between 2017 and 2018 were put in sterile containers, and then analyzed by Dr. Chan's research team at the University of Toronto.

The results were surprising.

"According to environmental guidelines for levels of toxicants in other urban Canadian cities, the levels of metals and PAHs in Fort McMurray homes were not life-threatening after the wildfire," noted Dr. Chan. "We did detect a small difference in arsenic levels. But it wasn't dangerous - and was likely the result of wood treated with chromated copper arsenate being burned."

Dr. Chan presented his research results at a knowledge translation forum hosted by the University of Alberta in November 2019. Attendees included firefighters from Fort McMurray, as well as participants who took part in his study.

Dr. Brian Rowe, Scientific Director of the CIHR Institute of Circulatory and Respiratory Health, is proud of the rapid response developed by CIHR to address the health effects of the wildfire in collaboration with a partnership between the Government of Alberta and the Canadian Red Cross.

Aside from Dr. Chan’s work, six other research projects regarding the health effects of the Fort McMurray wildfire received approximately $500,000 each over the course of two years.

“There are links across all six projects, including two supported by the Canadian Red Cross (CRC), which focused on strengthening individual resilience and addressing mental health and psychosocial issues,” said Ali Paul, director of Protection and Psychosocial Support programs with the CRC. “By grouping the wildfire projects together, you can really see the connections and a more holistic picture of how recovery can unfold. The findings will support communities in Wood Buffalo in their recovery, but may also apply in other contexts.”

The partnership and collaboration between CIHR, Alberta Innovates, and the CRC represents new ways of working together.

“Science is becoming a ‘team’ game -- and this was certainly an example of that transition,” said Dr. Rowe.

In Dr. Chan’s case, a partnership with Alberta’s Ministry of Environment and Parks helped him collect ash from the ground in Fort McMurray so that he could conduct the analysis. The Wood Buffalo Environmental Association helped analyze air quality data, and Alberta’s Ministry of Health offered input regarding the environmental quality of the air after the wildfire.

“This is important research,” noted Dr. Rowe. “Dr. Chan’s study not only reassures Fort McMurray residents, but it will also help other communities faced with similar natural disasters in the future.”

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