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It's not just the smoke — as climate change prompts more wildfires, hidden health risks emerge – CBC.ca

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For 53-year-old photographer Stefanie Harron, the past few weeks have felt like living in a smoky, fiery hell. 

The air in her hometown of Castlegar, B.C., has been thick with smoke as wildfires rage nearby. Her neighbour’s house is barely visible though a mere 25 metres away. Her eyes water and her asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) make the simple act of breathing a challenge. 

Instead of using her puffer once or twice a week, she’s now using it four to five times a day. 

“The air, thick with particulates, makes me want to vomit,” she says. “The first thing you notice is the taste before the acrid smell. I would compare it to living in an ashtray. Every breath without a respirator is like short gasps for air,” Harron says. “[I’m] almost scared to take a deep breath knowing it will result in coughing and make it worse and more difficult.”

Harron is not alone. As roughly 250 fires rage across the province, tens of thousands of people have been exposed to poor air quality, and it’s particularly difficult on those who have health issues. Another 200 wildfires burn across the country.

Climate change is expected to exacerbate wildfires, with estimates of anywhere from a 74 to 118 per cent increase in Canadian land burned by 2100

WATCH | What’s the health impact of wildfire smoke?

Wildfire season in Canada contributes to increases in emergency room visits and for some people with respiratory illnesses, it can lead to severe outcomes. 4:32

And though the risks from smoke are among the biggest worries, there are also less-obvious health concerns such as the impact on mental health and clean water to consider.

Questions about long-term effects

Scientists examining air pollution — including that produced by wildfires — study various types of emissions, but among those most commonly measured is particulate matter (PM), specifically PM 2.5. 

PM 2.5 are fine particles measuring roughly 2.5 micrometres and smaller. Inhaling them can affect the lungs and heart, and are of serious concern to those with existing health issues such as asthma or heart and lung disease.

This illustration shows the approximate size of various particles. (Environmental Protection Agency)

The immediate effects may be obvious, but doctors are also trying to better understand the long-term impact.

“Four of the past five summers in British Columbia have had significant wildfire smoke events. And … we’re not really sure what the long-term health consequences are for populations who are exposed this way, sort of season after season,” said Sarah Henderson, the scientific director of environmental health at the British Columbia Centre for Disease Control. “There’s the potential for these big and significant wildfire smoke exposures to affect the health of those individuals throughout their lives.”

And those particles aren’t just concerning for those who live near the fires. Smoke can travel far from its source, sometimes traversing the globe. 

“For major smoke events, you’ll see the intercontinental transport of smoke,” said Jeff Eyamie, regional air health officer for Health Canada. “For the Fort Mac fires [in 2016], they had smoke as far away as the Ukraine that they could trace back to the Fort McMurray fires.” 

Here at home, on July 19, Environment and Climate Change Canada issued an air quality advisory for southern Ontario, including Toronto, as well as Ottawa as smoke from wildfires in northwestern Ontario blanketed the province. A week later, parts of Quebec, including Montreal, were put under a similar advisory.

Anxious and irritable

And then there is the impact on mental health. Wildfires sometimes force people to be evacuated from their homes, causing high levels of stress. Those who live in areas where the air is thick with smoke may also be forced to remain indoors for long periods of time. In addition, there may be other hidden costs, like a run on asthma medication.

An orange sun is seen in the sky at Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory, roughly 12 kilometres southwest of Napanee, Ont. (Submitted by Malcolm Park)

Dr. Courtney Howard, an emergency physician in Yellowknife and past president of the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment, was involved in a study that interviewed 30 residents in Yellowknife, which experiences wildfires every year. In the study, they were asked what it felt like to live through a long period of smoky air. 

“What people told us was that they felt anxious and irritable,” she said. “They were cooped up, had that cabin fever … lots of comments about the decrease in physical activity. And so, of course, what that means is that people lose the treatment benefit that we know we get from being outside in nature, exercising.” 

At one point, the mayor of Yellowknife opened up an indoor exercise space so people could be active in a well-ventilated area, said Howard. It’s something she believes officials might need to consider in a future with climate change.

Impact on the environment

The particles that waft into the air affect more than just physical health. Those particles also land on trees, plants, buildings and end up in water.

Ash, sediment and minerals not only flow into streams and rivers, but also downstream into lakes and reservoirs, potentially affecting drinking water and contributing to algal blooms.

The good news is that in Canada the water purification systems are able to filter them out for the most part. But the added strain on the system means that it may cost more to handle the higher level of contaminants. 

“The issue around fire and drinking water is not — and I have to emphasize not — generally an issue of ‘Am I drinking something with some sort of toxic contaminant in it?'” says Monica Emelko, a professor in the University of Waterloo’s civil and environmental engineering department. “It’s rather an issue of: ‘If toxic contaminants get into the water, will you be able to have something running out of your tap that you can use?’ … When we have these disturbances on the landscape, that really pushes our ability to do that in a cost effective way.”

There are also effects on ecosystems, says Uldis Silins, a professor of forest hydrology at the University of Alberta. For example, as sediment and minerals flow into water they can upset the chemical balance in a lake. 

“One of the things that we’ve seen repetitively is very large impacts on things like sediment,” Silins said. “Unlike other kinds of disturbance pressures we might be thinking about, the scope of those impacts was not a 30 or 50 per cent kind of increase in sediment production, they were hundreds of percentages or thousands of percentages, so, orders of magnitude increases in those contaminants.” 

And as humans rely on those ecosystems, there may be other consequences – such as the impact on fish in lakes that are eaten. 

“I don’t think it’s bold of me to say we’re in a climate emergency. And everyone needs to be aware that this is happening,” said Health Canada’s Eyamie. “The models may not be 100 per cent accurate, but they’ll be accurate enough that this should be cause for concern for everyone.”

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5 planets align in night sky for first time in years – CTV News

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A rare, five-planet alignment will peak on June 24, allowing a spectacular viewing of Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn as they line up in planetary order.

The event began at the beginning of June and has continued to get brighter and easier to see as the month has progressed, according to Diana Hannikainen, observing editor of Sky & Telescope.

A waning crescent moon will be joining the party between Venus and Mars on Friday, adding another celestial object to the lineup. The moon will represent the Earth’s relative position in the alignment, meaning this is where our planet will appear in the planetary order.

This rare phenomenon has not occurred since December 2004, and this year, the distance between Mercury and Saturn will be smaller, according to Sky & Telescope.

HOW TO VIEW THE ALIGNMENT

Stargazers will need to have a clear view of the eastern horizon to spot the incredible phenomenon, Hannikainen said. Humans can view the planetary show with the naked eye, but binoculars are recommended for an optimal viewing experience, she added.

The best time to view the five planets is in the one hour before sunrise, she said. The night before you plan to view the alignment, check when the sun will rise in your area.

Some stargazers are especially excited for the celestial event, including Hannikainen. She flew from her home west of Boston to a beachside town along the Atlantic Ocean to secure an optimal view of the alignment.

“I’ll be out there with my binoculars, looking towards the east and southeast and crossing all my fingers and toes that it is going to be clear,” Hannikainen said.

You don’t have to travel to catch a glimpse of the action because it will be visible to people around the globe.

Stargazers in the Northern Hemisphere can see the planets from the eastern to southeastern horizon while those in the Southern Hemisphere should look along the eastern to northeastern horizon. The only requirement is a clear sky in the direction of the alignment.

By the next day, the moon will have continued its orbit around the Earth, moving it out of alignment with the planets, she said.

If you miss the five-planet alignment in sequential order, the next one will happen in 2040, according to Sky & Telescope.

There will be seven more full moons in 2022, according to The Old Farmers’ Almanac:

  • June 14: Strawberry moon
  • July 13: Buck moon
  • Aug. 11: Sturgeon moon
  • Sept. 10: Harvest moon
  • Oct. 9: Hunter’s moon
  • Nov. 8: Beaver moon
  • Dec. 7: Cold moon

These are the popularized names associated with the monthly full moons, but the significance of each one may vary across Native American tribes.

LUNAR AND SOLAR ECLIPSES

There will be one more total lunar eclipse and a partial solar eclipse in 2022, according to The Old Farmer’s Almanac.

Partial solar eclipses occur when the moon passes in front of the sun but only blocks some of its light. Be sure to wear proper eclipse glasses to safely view solar eclipses, as the sun’s light can be damaging to the eye.

A partial solar eclipse on Oct. 25 will be visible to those in Greenland, Iceland, Europe, northeastern Africa, the Middle East, western Asia, India and western China. Neither of the partial solar eclipses will be visible from North America.

A total lunar eclipse will also be on display for those in Asia, Australia, the Pacific, South America and North America on Nov. 8 between 3:01 a.m. ET and 8:58 a.m. ET — but the moon will be setting for those in eastern regions of North America.

METEOR SHOWERS

Check out the remaining 11 showers that will peak in 2022:

  • Southern delta Aquariids: July 29-30
  • Alpha Capricornids: July 30-31
  • Perseids: Aug. 11-12
  • Orionids: Oct. 20-21
  • Southern Taurids: Nov. 4-5
  • Northern Taurids: Nov. 11-12
  • Leonids: Nov. 17-18
  • Geminids: Dec. 13-14
  • Ursids: Dec. 21-22

If you live in an urban area, you may want to drive to a place that isn’t littered with city lights to get the best view.

Find an open area with a wide view of the sky. Make sure you have a chair or blanket so you can look straight up. And give your eyes about 20 to 30 minutes — without looking at your phone or other electronics — to adjust to the darkness so the meteors will be easier to spot.

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June 25: The Quirks & Quarks listener question show – CBC.ca

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We end our season with our ever-popular, always riveting Quirks & Quarks Listener Question Show

Evelyn Campbell in Vancouver, British Columbia asks: If you were out in space and died, would your body decompose?

For the answer we reached out to Daryl Haggard, an astronomer in the Department of Physics at McGill University and the McGill Space Institute. She explained there aren’t any microbes in space that would act to decompose your body, although it would persist in a ‘freeze-dried’ state.

If you were to die in space, your body would not decompose, even inside a spacesuit. (NASA)

Bernie Buzik from Wainwright, Alberta asks: Why are there concentrations of metals in some areas and not others around the world? Basically — why is there not a concentration of gold in my backyard?

For the answer we turned to Peter Hollings, an NOHFC Industrial Research Chair in Mineral Exploration in the Department of Geology at Lakehead University. He says that where minerals get deposited depends on complex geological processes, and which metals collect in which places has to do with the physical and chemical conditions particular to those substances, which result in concentrations of different metals in different parts of the world.

A man with a metal pan standing in a rocky stream
An amateur gold digger pans for gold near Mercenac in France. (Georges Gobet/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images)

Bob Ennenberg from Vancouver, B.C. asks: Why can’t the immune system get rid of the herpes viruses like it can with other viruses? 

According to Jennifer Corcoran, a virologist at the University of Calgary, herpes viruses have a unique ability to hide from the immune system, whether it’s the chickenpox virus that can later manifest as shingles or one of the herpes simplex viruses that cause recurring mouth or genital sores. Until some kind of stress triggers their reactivation, the viruses essentially remain invisible by not making viral proteins that would otherwise alert the immune system to their presence. 

A man with a rash on his back
The herpes virus family includes herpes simplex, which can cause cold sores, and varicella, which causes chickenpox and shingles. These viruses can hide from the immune system in nerve cells. (Shutterstock)

Bill Yates from Lethbridge, Alta. asks: If space is at absolute zero, and the Earth has been racing through it for millions of years, how does the centre of the Earth maintain its heat to remain molten?

There are two reasons why the Earth’s core remains molten under these conditions according to Jesse Rogerson, an astronomer and astrophysicist from York University in Toronto. One is that heat does not escape the planet because the geological plates that cover the surface act as a giant insulating blanket. And the other reason is that the decay  or radioactive elements within the Earth provides a constant source of heat.

A cutaway illustration of the Earth's layers down to the core
This illustration shows a cross-section of the varying layers of the Earth. (Goddard Media Studios/NASA)

Sheena Sharp in Toronto, Ontario asks: Why is poop brown in most animals, but white in birds?

For the answer we asked Emma Allen-Vercoe, a professor and Canada Research Chair in the Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology at the University of Guelph. She says it comes down to how birds get rid of waste. They only have one waste oriface, called a cloaca, and their equivalent of pee is a white pasty substance. They mostly excrete their poop and pee at the same time, all mixed up in one gross mess.

A bird of prey standing on the bird-poop covered head of a statue
Bird poop includes a white pasty substance that is the equivalent of mammalian urine. (Yawar Nazir/Getty Images)

Doug McDougall, an expat Canadian living in Newcastle, California asks: I watched [the documentary] “The Octopus Teacher” a while ago and I was just really curious: what possible evolutionary advantage can there be to having this animal only laying one batch of eggs before they self-destruct?

To find out why octopus mothers die soon after laying her eggs, we went to Stefan Linquist, an associate professor of philosophy at the University of Guelph who specializes in ecology and genomics and has an interest in octopuses. He said female octopuses stop hunting and eating in order to protecting their eggs from predators and give them best chance of surviving into adulthood, maximizing the chance that her lineage will survive.

A close up image of an octopus's eye
The Netflix documentary, The Octopus Teacher, tells the story of the year Craig Foster spent with a wild octopus. (Craig Foster/Sea Change Project/Netflix)

James Schoening from Vancouver, B.C. asks: Animations for the new James Webb Space Telescope show that it’s orbiting an empty point in space called the Lagrange 2 Point. How can it do this if there is no actual mass there to gravitationally attract it?

To help explain this far out question, we went to Nathalie Ouellette, an astrophysicist at the University of Montreal and the outreach scientist for the James Webb Space Telescope in Canada. She said to imagine spacetime in the solar system as a big rubber sheet with a big dip in the middle for the Sun and another for Earth that follows its groove all the way around the Sun. The Lagrange points are like flat areas on that rubber sheet where an object like the telescope can stay, like a parking spot in space. 

An animation of a space telescope circling around the sun.
Animation of the James Webb Space Telescope’s orbit at the Lagrange 2 point. (GSFC/NASA)

Bill Bean from Kitchener, Ont. asks: The lack of memory of our first years of life is explained, by some, as infantile amnesia. Yet many things learned in this period, like how to speak and how to walk, are not forgotten. Why are some toddler events wiped clean from memory?

We spoke with Myra Fernandes, a professor in cognitive neuroscience at the University of Waterloo. She says the main theory is that the hippocampus, which is where memories are stored, just isn’t developed enough to consolidate memories at that age. Also, at that age the brain is primed to learn through repetition, like how we learn to walk and talk, rather than preserving unique details from a single event. 

A toddler in a shopping cart
We don’t tend to remember things from our early childhood because the part of the brain where memories are consolidated isn’t fully formed yet. (Pavel L Photo and Video/Shutterstock)

Elva Kellington from Salt Spring Island, B.C. asks: Is there any similarity in the spinning water around a drain when the plug is pulled, a hurricane and the rotating stars around the black hole in our Milky Way galaxy?

For this mind twister, we spoke with Hari Kunduri, a mathematician at Memorial University of Newfoundland who’s moving to McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario. He said the angular momentum of each of these systems remains constant, so just as spinning figure skaters speed up when they pull in their arms, the material spinning around the central axis in these systems also speeds up the closer it gets to the point it’s spinning around.

whirlpools in the ocean off a coastline
Spinning whirlpools are seen following the 2011 tsunami and earthquake off the coast of Fukushima, Japan. (Yomiuri/Reuters)

Anna-Marie Weiler in Ottawa, Ont. asks: Humans have a coccyx, also known as a vestigial tail. Did we once have a tail, and if so, when did we lose it?

Caroline Parins-Fukuchi from the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Toronto explains that the coccyx is part of our tail bone, which is really a tail, just a short one. We need to go back at least 20 million years to find a common ancestor of all apes, including us, with traditional long tail. 

This photograph shows a piece from a 2021 exhibition in Madrid, “Body Worlds, el ritmo de la vida” by German anatomist Gunther von Hagens. You can see the small triangular-shaped bone known as a coccyx at the base of the spinal column through the skeleton’s pelvis bones. (Oscar Del Pozo/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images)

(Online and podcast only)

Jane Sly from Ottawa, Ont. asks: How much protection from concussions can we get from helmets? 

For the answer, we went to Blaine Hoshizaki, the director of the University of Ottawa’s Neurotrauma Impact Science Laboratory. He says traditional rigid foam cycling helmets were only designed to break apart upon impact to prevent catastrophic brain injuries, not concussions, unlike today’s hockey and football helmets that tend to have softer interior materials with some degree of concussion protection. 

Miami Dolphin players perform practice drills while wearing extra helmet protection to prevent concussion injuries during their 2021 training camp in Miami. (Mark Brown/Getty Images)

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NASA determines Space Launch System testing complete – Yahoo Canada Finance

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The testing campaign for NASA’s super big, super expensive Space Launch System is now complete, the agency declared on Friday. All that’s left now for the rocket is launch the Artemis I demonstration mission to the moon, the first in a long line of planned missions to eventually return humans to the lunar surface by the middle of the decade. The launch could occur as soon as late August, NASA officials said.

The agency will roll the 322-foot-tall rocket and Orion spacecraft back to the Vehicle Assembly Building, an assembly hangar at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, on July 1 or 2, where both will be prepared for launch. From there, the agency will have roughly six to eight weeks of work before what should be the final roll-out, John Blevins, chief engineer of the Space Launch System Program, said Friday. Once SLS is back on the launch pad, officials would spend around 10-14 days preparing for liftoff, Cliff Lanham, senior vehicle operations manager for exploration ground systems, added.

NASA declared the “wet dress rehearsal” (WDR), as the slew of tests is called, complete despite a hydrogen leak issue that caused launch controllers to halt the countdown at T-29 seconds (officials aimed to count down to T-9.34 seconds, right before engine ignition).

The leak was detected in the hydrogen bleed line during the propellant loading process, when hundreds of thousands of gallons of cryogenic liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen were being loaded into the tanks. But despite the leak issues, the agency was able to load both rocket stages’ tanks with propellant, then drain them — major testing pieces that the agency had yet to put into place.

SLS testing checklist. Image Credits: NASA (opens in a new window)

While officials did not give an exact launch date, Tom Whitmeyer, deputy associate administrator for common exploration systems development, said things are looking good for an end of August timeframe.

“We feel getting through the wet dress was a major milestone for us,” he said. “It gives us some confidence that we’re still on a good path.”

The inaugural launch of SLS this year would be 12 years in the making. It was originally envisioned by Congress and NASA as a replacement to the Space Shuttle. It is now designated as the launch system that will eventually return humans to the moon — no small honor, all things considered.

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