News / Calgary

Calgary’s air quality comparable to Beijing due to wildfires: Expert

U of C researcher says woodsmoke not as toxic as industrial pollution

Smoke and fire retardant is seen along a neighbourhood in Lake Country, B.C., Sunday. Experts say the phosphorous fire retardant is showing up the in smoke drifting into Alberta.

The Canadian Press

Smoke and fire retardant is seen along a neighbourhood in Lake Country, B.C., Sunday. Experts say the phosphorous fire retardant is showing up the in smoke drifting into Alberta.

Environment Canada is warning that parts of central and southern Alberta could see high-risk air quality levels on Wednesday.

The smell is unmistakable when you step outside, but what exactly is in the smoke that’s drifting in from B.C.?

A scientist at the university of Calgary is working on that exact question.

Dr. Ke Du, assistant professor at the Schulich School of Engineering, specializes in measuring air quality.

He first saw a spike in air particulates and carbon monoxide (CO) around 11 a.m. on Sunday.

Normally the city sees about 10 micrograms of particles per cubic metre of air (μg/m3), but during the worst of this week’s smoke, that number jumped to 41 μg/m3, or four times the normal amount.

Carbon monoxide levels jumped to 10 times their normal levels.

This graph shows the spike in particulate pollution (black) and carbon monoxide (red) on Sunday and Monday of this week.

Courtesy University of Calgary

This graph shows the spike in particulate pollution (black) and carbon monoxide (red) on Sunday and Monday of this week.

Du said in some ways, the levels of air pollution we saw Sunday afternoon and Monday were comparable to what people see in Beijing, which was reporting 53 μg/m3. At the same time, the pollution from woodsmoke is very different from the industrial pollution seen in China’s big cities.

He said the smoke from the wildfires in BC has a specific fingerprint due to one of the chemicals showing up in air: phosphorus.

“That can be a tracer or indicator of the wildfire because the phosphate is contained in the fire retardants,” said Du. “It will be mixed with the particles and transported downwind.”

Overall, he said the wildfire smoke has particles coming directly from the combustion, while Beijing’s air contains secondary pollutants, which are much more toxic and are worse for people’s health.

These tiny particles are about 1/20th the thickness of a human hair.

“They can settle deep in the lungs,” he said. “The chemicals will get into the respiratory tract. Some components can dissolve in the mucus or tissue fluid. It can get transferred into the blood and go to the whole body.”

DU has information on the basic makeup of the smoke, but he will be running tests to break down the exact chemical composition in the coming weeks, and compare it to normal days.

As for Wednesday, people with breathing difficulties are being advised to stay indoors, or perhaps find a public place that's cool and ventilated.

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