Dr. Kyle Merritt is a family physician in Nelson. Photo: Submitted

Dr. Kyle Merritt is a family physician in Nelson. Photo: Submitted

COLUMN: Wildfire smoke affects the most vulnerable in our community

Nelson’s Dr. Kyle Merritt writes about the health impacts of wildfires

Fourth in a series of columns on climate change by local health employees. Read the first one here, the second here, and the third here.

I grew up in Castlegar and returned to the Kootenays eight years ago with my partner and children after completing my education and training as a general practitioner. We moved back to Nelson to enjoy the beautiful outdoors with our children.

Although it has been wonderful to be back in the Kootenays, I have noticed that the weather has changed. After only a couple years of being back home, we experienced the first summer of severe wildfire smoke, something I had no memory of as a child. I braced myself for seeing an influx of patients with respiratory conditions, but while we did see an uptick in asthma exacerbations, the major problems the smoke brought were related to mental health. The number of people with depression and anxiety seemed to double. Patients described feeling trapped and oppressed by the polluted air. I was not used to thinking about the air we breathe as being a threat to health.

I had to learn more about the health risks of air pollution, something that I had thought I would avoid by moving back to the Kootenays. My patients asked for advice on how to adapt. Should they continue to exercise outdoors when the smoke is bad? Is it safe to take their newborn child for a walk? I’ve learned that, in addition to respiratory illness, the particulate matter in wildfire smoke can increase the risk of stroke and cardiovascular disease and affect multiple systems in the body.

I started to feel a sense of despair about what kind of future my kids were going to experience and sad each day that I told them it wasn’t safe for them to play outside. It was becoming clear to me that they were not going to enjoy the same summers that I did and I started to worry more and more about their future.

In the past, I have hesitated to speak out on what I thought of as environmental issues. I now realize that the climate crisis is a public health emergency. There is copious evidence that climate change, air pollution and general degradation of the environment are affecting the most vulnerable people in our communities. The medical community, both locally and internationally, is recognizing the necessity to use our voices to advocate on this issue.

Our society has made significant progress limiting the damage of tobacco smoke, a substance much more addictive than fossil fuels. Through multiple governmental, personal and medical interventions, we have made progress on smoking, and we also need to take a multilevel approach with fossil fuels. It is a crisis that requires responsible citizens to be involved in every way they are able.

There are many ways we can work together for a healthier future. There are provincial and federal programs that are offering rebates to upgrade your home or switch to an electric car. Better air sealing, insulation and an electric heat pump can protect you and your family from the heat and smoke that will continue to come, while also decreasing the amount of air pollution in our community.

We can’t expect everyone to be able to afford to upgrade their homes or change the way they move around on their own. However, we can all work together to support leaders who are sincere in their efforts to do more urgently. Like others, I have often struggled with a feeling of futility when it comes to tackling a global problem like this. I still worry about this, but I no longer let it paralyze me. Too much is at stake. It is unfortunately no longer enough to believe in climate change or support the idea of a healthy environment. We all must take action together to avoid the huge health impacts and economic losses that are projected.

I love my patients and I love the Kootenays. I want to see my patients, my family, and my community thrive. Together we can adapt to the coming challenges and do our best to lead the way for others to follow.

Kyle Merritt is a family physician in Nelson