While smoke from wildfires can severely impact our health, other contributors to poor air quality can be harmful, especially for those with respiratory illnesses.
However, everyone should care about air quality, notes Jacqueline Turvey, Interior Health primary care respiratory therapist and coordinator for the Integrated Primary and Community Care program, based in Kamloops.
“We should care about air quality because we all breathe,” Turvey says. “We should want the air we are taking into our lungs, the air going into the lungs of all those – family, friends, patients, clients, pets – we care about to be as clean as possible to reduce the chance of future health issues related to poor air quality.”
She says air pollution can trigger asthma or Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) flare-ups, an exacerbation of COPD requiring other medications to manage and get the lungs back to the condition in which they were before pollution exposure.
“Air pollution affects those with respiratory illnesses by being an irritant to airways and/or increasing inflammation in airways,” she says, adding she would like to see more people check the Air Quality Health Index more often, not just during wildfire season, as poor air quality events can happen at any time of the year.
“It is a health protection tool used to make decisions to reduce short-term exposure to air pollution by adjusting activity levels during increased levels of air pollution,” she says.
According to a federal Central Interior Air Zone report, Williams Lake needs to make air quality improvements. The report analyzed data from 2018 to 2020, with communities in the Central Interior Air Zone being assigned colour-coded management levels for fine particulate matter (PM2.5), nitrogen dioxide (NO2), ground-level ozone (O3) and sulphur dioxide (SO2). For PM2.5 and NO2, Williams Lake was assigned the orange management level, meaning one level better than not achieving standards (red). For ground-level ozone (O3), it was assigned yellow, one level better than orange, meaning the community needs to prevent air quality deterioration. Green, the best, would signify clean air quality levels.
“That basically says we are not exceeding (levels) but we are unpleasantly close,” says
Gavin King, air quality meteorologist with the Ministry of Environment and Climate Change Strategy, on Williams Lake’s results.
PM2.5 are very small, fine particulates that travel deep into the lungs and bloodstream when inhaled. They can cause cardiovascular and respiratory diseases and other adverse health effects at any exposure level.
NO2 is a gaseous pollutant formed during high temperatures and the combustion of fossil fuels, such as vehicle emissions. When combined with sunlight, volatile organic compounds from vegetation, and sunlight it can lead to smog and ground-level ozone (O3).
The report notes wildfire-smoke influenced data was taken into consideration and separated from results to focus on human-caused sources of pollution, to drive actions to protect human health and the environment. Data on SO2 for Williams Lake wasn’t available.
To check current air quality, visit https://www.weather.gc.ca/airquality/pages/bcaq-017_e.html or https://map.purpleair.com/.
Erin Hitchcock is an Air Aware educator with Scout Island Nature Centre.