Returning to Fort McMurray: what are the health risks?

We know many of you have concerns about the possible health risk of returning to Fort McMurray following the devastating wildfire, which we will try to answer here.

What are the risks?

Forest fires and house fires produce and release a number of substances into the air, water and ground that can pose major health risks, including cancer. It’s important to note the same hazardous substances are also produced by a number of other sources, including transportation, industries, power generation and residential heating. 

Research shows that the risk of cancer is greatest when people are exposed to high levels of these hazardous substances over long periods of time, spanning years and decades. This is more common among first responders, such as firefighters.

There is currently no research that shows the risk of short-term, yet intense, exposure is associated with an increased risk of cancer among the general population.

Learn more about the health implications of air pollution.

We also encourage you to review the Wildfire smoke and your health and Returning to your home after a wildfire pamphlets created by Alberta Health Services.

Your health

The Government of Alberta is overseeing this monitoring and allowing people to return to Fort McMurray and Wood Buffalo region only when it is safe to do so. There are, however, ongoing concerns about air, water and ground quality in the region along with hazards from products and materials that had to be abandoned (e.g.; garbage, refrigerators). 

The Government of Alberta recommends that cancer patients do not return to Fort McMurray at this time, at least until the Northern Lights Regional Health Centre is fully operational.

For those who have returned or will soon return to Fort McMurray, it’s important for you to follow the government’s advice about how to protect yourself from hazards in the environment. Please familiarize yourself with the government’s Re-entry information booklet.

If you are concerned about your health, we encourage you to speak with your healthcare provider or one of the health support professionals who will be stationed at information centres across Fort McMurray (see page 8 in the government’s Re-entry information booklet).

Also, take action to reduce your exposure to air pollution as much as possible. Check daily air-quality levels and air-pollution forecasts in your area. This information is usually provided with your weather forecast as the Air Quality Health Index. Follow the advice given with the forecast. Try to plan strenuous outdoor activities at times when the air quality is best. 

Resources available to cancer patients

Fort McMurray has long been one of the Canadian Cancer Society’s greatest partners in the fight for life, and its people have invested significant money in cutting-edge research, prevention initiatives, and – most importantly at times like this – caring support services for people living with cancer.

We have many programs that can help you in this time of need. Being displaced from your home is hard enough; let the Society help ease the burden of cancer while you and your community heal.

  • For up-to-date and trusted cancer information: Cancer Information Service – 1-888-939-3333
  • For rides to and from your treatments in Edmonton, Red Deer, Calgary or Lethbridge: Volunteer Driver Program
  • For peer support and comfort: CancerConnection – 1-800-822-8664 – or cancerconnection.ca
  • For a loaned wig to restore your confidence after treatment: Wig Lending Program
  • For financial assistance, please speak with social workers at cancer centres in Edmonton, Red Deer, Calgary and, when re-opened, Fort McMurray about the Society’s Wood Buffalo Emergency Fund
No matter where you are calling home these days, we are here to help you on your cancer journey. Whether you’re a cancer patient, caregiver or simply know someone dealing with cancer, please access any of the free information and support services listed above as needed.

What is being done to minimize the risks?

Any health risks associated with events like this devastating wildfire can be minimized through ongoing monitoring of chemicals in the air, water and ground, and by taking action when levels are deemed unsafe.

While the Government of Alberta and the residents of Fort McMurray focus on the immediate priorities of returning home and re-establishing a working city, there must also be ongoing work to ensure the safety of residents. The Canadian Cancer Society is calling on the provincial government to maintain ongoing monitoring and reporting of chemicals in the environment. We also strongly encourage the government to thoroughly track the incidence of diseases, such as cancer, in the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo, especially among first responders who remained in the area during the wildfire.