PGAIR typically focuses on air quality issues that people in our airshed have some control over - things like smoke from wood-burning appliances, emissions from vehicle idling and the burning of yard waste, and road dust that gets kicked up after the spring melt.
But while we may not have control over wildfires and the smoke they create, we feel remiss not to talk a bit about the health impacts of wildfire smoke and how folks can protect themselves during Smoky Skies Advisories.
Wildfire smoke results from the burning of forests and grasslands, and can be a major source of toxic air pollutants. PM2.5 or “fine particulate matter” is the wildfire smoke pollutant that causes the biggest problems for human health, since the particles are small enough to be inhaled deep into the lungs.
Although tiny, PM2.5 can cause mighty health problems. Some of the symptoms brought on by wildfire smoke are relatively mild and can be managed without medical care, like (1):
Smoke may be carried thousands of kilometres downwind, and distant locations can be affected almost as severely as areas close to the fire. This means that folks in Prince George can be impacted by wildfire smoke even when there are no fires happening in the immediate area (4).
Suffice it to say, it’s a good idea to learn how to reduce your exposure to PM2.5 during wildfire smoke episodes, especially since these are expected to increase in frequency and intensity with climate change. As forest fire researcher Mike Flannigan puts it, “The future is smoky [...] we better get used to it” (5).
Not everyone is impacted equally
That said, everyone’s health is at risk during heavy smoke conditions, and the health impacts of longer smoke episodes - which are becoming more common in BC - are not yet understood.
Measuring the health risk
With all of the wildfires in BC this summer, you’ve probably noticed the terms AQHI and AQI being thrown around in the news.
The Air Quality Index (AQI) is a tool used to communicate how polluted the air currently is or how polluted it might become. Think of it as a yardstick running from 0 to 500. The higher the AQI value, the greater the level of air pollution (7).
The newer Air Quality Health Index (AQHI) tells you about your health risk from air pollution on any given day, providing a simple number from 1 to 10 to indicate the health risk associated with local air quality. The higher the AQHI number, the greater the health risk.
More about it, and how AQHI can be used to protect your health, from our neighbours in Alberta: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8lfiZGNxcZQ&t=70s.
You can also find out what the AQHI is like in your community today at https://www.env.gov.bc.ca/epd/bcairquality/data/aqhi-table.html.
Protecting yourself during wildfire smoke episodes
Here are some tips to keep in mind on days when smoke is heavy (8):
We’ve put together a shortlist of wildfire smoke-related resources that we think are the cream of the crop. Bookmark them and commit them to memory!