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Smoke returns to Ottawa, with air quality deteriorating to 'very high risk' on Thursday

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Smoke from wildfires burning in northeastern Ontario and Quebec is blowing back into the national capital region, with poor air quality expected to continue until Canada Day.

The smoky, hazy air arrives as a new report shows the health costs connected to the smoke is in the hundreds of millions of dollars in Ottawa and eastern Ontario, as smoke is linked to heart attacks and more emergency room visits. 

Environment Canada has issued a special air quality statement, warning of "high levels of air pollution" developing in Ottawa.

"Smoke plumes from forest fires over northeastern Ontario and Quebec will move into the area today, resulting in deteriorated air quality," the weather agency said Thursday morning.

"These conditions are expected to continue into Saturday."

Environment Canada's Air Quality Health Index rated Ottawa's air quality was at 6 - ‘moderate risk,' at 12 p.m. Thursday. The air quality is expected to deteriorate to 9 -  'very high risk' tonight. 

A special air quality statement is also in effect for the Kingston area, Pembroke, Petawawa, Cobden, Renfrew, Arnprior and Calabogie areas.

A smog warning is in effect in Gatineau.

Smoke from wildfires burning in northern Ontario and Quebec has been blowing through Ottawa throughout the month of June, prompting several special air quality warnings for the region. Last weekend, the smoky weather forced the city of Ottawa to close beaches and outdoor pools, while the organizers of the Ottawa Dragon Boat Festival and the Summer Solstice Indigenous Festival cancelled activities on Sunday afternoon.

"Wildfire smoke can be harmful to everyone’s health even at low concentrations. Continue to take actions to protect your health and reduce exposure to smoke," Environment Canada said. "People with lung disease (such as asthma) or heart disease, older adults, children, pregnant people, and people who work outdoors are at higher risk of experiencing health effects caused by wildfire smoke."

Experts say any exposure to particles from wildfire smoke exposure can be harmful.

"Most of what we breathe we actually breathe back out. A small fraction of what we breathe in sticks in our lungs and we then try and actually get rid of it," said Michael Brauer with the school of population and public health at the University of British Columbia, adding sneezing is one way that happens. He says the smoke can affect our lungs, heart, blood vessels and brain.

"It seems like overall it's that constant, longer-term, lower level of exposure that's actually most harmful and what that does is it really just accelerates some of the heart disease, the lung disease that also have other causes but it kind of potentiates those impacts," Brauer said.

It comes as Environment Canada predicts wildfires will become an even bigger concern in the coming decades.

"Whether or not every year is going to be more significant than the last that's not something we can say,” said warning preparedness meteorologist Steven Flisfeder. “It's something that remains to be seen but the likelihood of forest fires becoming a bigger concern in the coming decades is something that is consistent with climate change." 

Smoky air quality linked to $472 million in health costs, report 

As smoky air drifts back into Ottawa this week from forest fires in northern Ontario and Quebec, a new survey suggests the health costs connected to the smoke is in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

The Canadian Climate Institute says the health costs associated from the forest fire smoke between June 4 and 8 in Ottawa was $472 million, the highest of any municipality in Ontario. The report shows the health costs were $436 million in Toronto, $101 million in Kingston and $41 million in Cornwall.

The city of Ottawa and Gatineau cancelled outdoor activities the week of June 5 due to the smoke from wildfires, while school boards postponed outdoor activities and recess.

Health impacts linked to any level of exposure include premature mortality, an increase in child bronchitis and heart attacks, and more hospital emergency room visits due to asthma attacks, the report says.

Ottawa’s medical officer of health Dr. Vera Etches had said there was an uptick in emergency room visits related to the air quality during the first week of June.

Ottawa's air quality rating was a 10 – 'very high risk' several times through the month of June.

Ottawa weather

Here is a look at Environment Canada’s weather forecast for Ottawa.

Expect a mix of sun and cloud and a high of 27 C on Thursday. The humidex will make it feel more like 32.

There will be widespread smoke throughout the day.

It will be partly cloudy this evening and temperatures will fall to 14 C overnight.

Friday’s forecast calls for a mix of sun and cloud with a 30 per cent chance of showers in the morning and late in the afternoon. There will also be a risk of a thunderstorm late in the afternoon.

The high will be 25 C, and the humidex will be 29.

Expect cloudy skies with a 30 per cent chance of showers Friday evening. The overnight low will be 18 C.

The outlook for Canada Day calls for mainly cloudy skies with a 60 per cent chance of showers and a high 25 C.

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