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Health researchers invited to study Fort McMurray fire fallout

‘It is important that local leaders, citizens, communities and employers are able to deliver the right kinds of evidence-based health actions’


 
A worker hangs a danger sign on a fence next to burnt homes in the neighbourhood of Prospect Point in Fort McMurray on Thursday, June 02, 2016. Up to 40,000 evacuees are eligible to return to their homes in Fort McMurray, Alta., today, but officials say they expect only about half that number will actually arrive. (Photograph by Chris Bolin)

A worker hangs a danger sign next to burnt homes in Prospect Point, Fort McMurray. (Photograph by Chris Bolin)

EDMONTON — The federal and Alberta governments hope new research will help them understand how the Fort McMurray wildfire is affecting the physical and emotional health of people who were forced from their homes or stayed behind to deal with the disaster.

The governments are asking researchers to apply for grants to study how the massive fire and evacuation affected the mental health of adults and children, including addictions.

There will also be money to look at post-traumatic stress disorder in first responders and cleanup workers and the effects of smoke and air pollution on respiratory health.

Other researchers are to study how the wildfires affected indigenous people and health care and emergency systems.

The Canadian Institutes for Health Research says the two-year projects are to be selected in October and begin in November

The governments and the Canadian Red Cross have pledged $3 million for the program.

“When disasters like the northern Alberta wildfires strike, Canadians need to be able to access critical health and social services,” federal Health Minister Jane Philpott said in a release Tuesday.

“The way governments and providers responded to these crises must be informed by the best evidence for both the immediate emergency and as communities rebuild.”

The wildfire in May forced more than 80,000 people from their homes and destroyed 2,400 buildings in and around Fort McMurray.

Cars make their way down Highway 83 as they re-enter Fort McMurray, AB. (Photograph by Chris Bolin)

Cars make their way down Highway 83 as they re-enter Fort McMurray, AB. (Photograph by Chris Bolin)

Background documents on the research project say natural disasters such as wildfires can have significant impacts on people’s health, including exacerbating breathing and heart conditions linked to poor air quality.

The stress on evacuees and first responders can lead to mental health problems such as anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.

There are also concerns about the long-term impact of exposure to toxic ash and environmental contaminants on people who return home.

“As communities undertake the long process of rebuilding from such an event, it is important that local leaders, citizens, communities and employers are able to deliver the right kinds of evidence-based health actions to the right people and the right time to protect and improve health,” says the description of the research project.

“Due to climate change wildfires are expected to become more frequent, severe and extensive, therefore we need to know how to respond to minimize adverse health outcomes.”


 

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