Smoky summer skies a new reality for B.C.
The haze is a reminder that climate change is bad for our health, says doctor
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The nearly two-week stretch of poor air quality that has socked Metro Vancouver in a hazy fog is a palpable reminder that climate change will directly affect human health, says a UBC professor who studies the link between the warming climate and respiratory disease.
“I used to think that these fires were going to be a day or two of bad air,” said Dr. Chris Carlsten, an associate professor at UBC’s department of medicine.
“I found an old interview I did where I said we really shouldn’t be too worried about it, because I didn’t want people to be hysterical and over-anxious. But (wildfires) are becoming so much more intense and longer that I can’t really be as nonchalant about it.”
While northeast and northwest Metro Vancouver is currently rated 7 (high risk) by the B.C. government, the air quality index is at a whopping 19 for Kamloops and 11 for Williams Lake. Both towns are near wildfires that have now been burning for over a month. On the bright side, a cool, wet weather expected to move in by the weekend should help to clear the air.
To put it in perspective, Vancouver currently has worse air than Beijing, a city notorious for its polluted air, said Dr. Don Sin, head respirologist at Providence Health.
“It’s like smoking 24/7 for about a week,” Sin said, who recommends wearing a well-fitted N95 mask (not a surgical mask) if you are working outside all day.
The trend towards hotter temperatures is having several impacts on air quality, Carlsten said. Wildfires are now more frequent and more intense, and that puts more particulate matter into the air.
There are also more allergens in the air because “as things get warmer, more pollen is let into the air, bigger bursts of pollen, more sustained seasons of pollen,” Carlsten said.
As well, “with heat typically comes more ozone,” Carlsten said. “Ozone is more of a direct threat. It’s an oxidizing gas that causes chemical reactions in the airways that cause damage for all people, but particularly for people who are already compromised.”
Even healthy people will get inflamed lungs and airways as the body reacts to air pollution, and many may not immediately notice the effect. It’s a different story for people with asthma, lung disease or a heart condition.
With enough exposure to air pollution, healthy people may develop conditions like asthma.
Wildfire season will end at some point and B.C. will once again enjoy blue skies and clear air. But while researchers believe “intermittency” can help (good air providing a break from bad air), Carlsten said not enough is known about exactly how long is too long to be exposed to pollution. If B.C. has these periods of intense pollution every summer, the cumulative effect will add up.
Carlsten believes the situation shows how important it is for governments to fight climate change through policies like taxing carbon.
“This is a great paradigm for people to get climate change,” Carlsten said, “if they really connect the climate change problem to the fact that you can’t really see the mountains like you’re used to.”