What's left behind after the smoke clears?
On most days in Edmonton, you can see for kilometers in any direction. From NAIT, for example, there’s usually an unobstructed view of downtown, just under 3 km to the south, and of the Pearl, the city’s tallest residential building, just over 4 km west.
Unless a miasma of wildfire smoke blows in. That’s when the question arises: what is in that air – and what’s going into our lungs?
But Graham Werstiuk (Respiratory Therapy ’06) feels that we should be asking that question even when the haze lifts. “Outside the [smoke from] forest fires, the air quality in Edmonton is under a lot of scrutiny,” says the Respiratory Therapy instructor.
According to the World Health Organization, average annual air quality in the capital is slightly worse than in Toronto, a city with nearly 3 times the population and population density.
How do we protect ourselves against pollutants we can see and those we can’t? Here, Werstiuk offers tips on how to breathe easy.
Know what’s in the air
Edmontonians, like Albertans, love vehicles. There’s nearly 1 vehicle registration for every person – of every age – in the province. According to 2011 stats (pdf), more than 82% of us commuted via personal transportation.
“If there’s not a lot of wind, that traffic pollution just sits there,” says Werstiuk.
Vehicle pollution, combined with emissions from homes and heavy industry, is the reason local organizations constantly monitor air quality.
Environment Canada includes the Air Quality Health Index as part of forecasts for many Canadian cities that may experience similar or worse situations. This 1-to-10 scale (it goes higher in extreme conditions) measures ozone, nitrogen dioxide and fine particulate matter, which can float in from a fire.
“[It’s] pegged to the expected health outcomes,” says Werstiuk; the higher it goes, the greater the irritation.
The index, however, is intended as a quick indicator of air quality. “If you want to nerd out, you can break it down into the parts and see charts over the days or weeks,” says Werstiuk. The non-profit Alberta Capital Airshed, he points out, measures additional compounds that can negatively affect health.
Acknowledge the risks
Werstiuk divides the impact of poor air quality into short- and long-term effects.
A relatively healthy person will know they’ve had their fill of polluted air by the onset of headaches, coughing, sneezing, runny nose, irritated eyes and shortness of breath during more intense physical activity.
The effects can be far worse for people with chronic lung diseases (like asthma) and cardiovascular conditions. “Irritation can trigger an attack and increased susceptibility to infection,” says Werstiuk. “For some of these patients, every infection carries a high risk of mortality.”
Long-term effects may prove dangerous to the general population as well. A study published in 2012 in the Canadian Medical Association Journal estimates that roughly 2% to 6% of lung cancers in Alberta are attributed to particulate matter air pollution, Werstiuk notes.
“What about these low levels we’re exposed to all the time?” he asks. “Are they causing problems as well?”
“What about these low levels we’re exposed to all the time?”
When the Air Quality Health Index begins to creep past the halfway mark, “in general, limiting exposure is the way to go,” says Werstiuk. Particularly when wildfire smoke is present, he recommends that people follow guidelines set out by the ministry of Environment and Climate Change, including:
- “Reduce your activity,” he says. Save the big run for another day. “If you’re breathing heavily, you’re allowing more exposure”
- Set your vehicle ventilation system to recirculate interior air
- Keep the windows closed at home and try to reduce the use of the furnace or air conditioner, which draw in outside air
- Limit exposure for children, who breathe faster than adults
- Monitor those with health issues. “There is a small but significant correlation between high air pollution days and admissions for heart attacks and stroke,” says Werstiuk
Taking action can also involve conversations and personal choices, he adds. Can we develop and enact policies to address everyday pollutants, not just those generated by occasional wildfires? Werstiuk wonders. Can we make decisions that will reduce automobile emissions and help keep the air not just clear but truly clean?
“What are all the things we can do so we can go out and enjoy the outdoors like we should?”
Can masks help?
As protection against fine particulate matter that comes from wildfires, the answer is yes and no, says Graham Werstiuk, Respiratory Therapy instructor. Common surgical or simple paper masks don’t help, as they’re design to guard against droplets.
An N95 mask, which covers the nose and mouth, can help when used properly.
“They’re intended to fit tight to the face,” says Werstiuk. “You should be passing all the air in and out through the mask, not escaping out the side.”
Available at your local hardware store, N95 masks are designed to block 95% of very small particles.