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!
*Scroll to the bottom of this post for details about our Clean Air Day Competition!
We have a lot of things to be proud of here in Prince George: strong community spirit, boundless nature at our doorstep, premier cross-country skiing, a budding local restaurant scene and - perhaps more than anything else - our prize-worthy lawns.
But as many of us know from experience, it takes a lot of hard work and sacrifice to keep up a beautiful lawn. One not-so-obvious sacrifice we make is to the quality of the air we breathe and to the health of our communities when we use gas-powered machinery to maintain a pristine green.
The two-stroke engine is a dying breed of machinery that is primarily encountered by Canadians nowadays in lawn and gardening tools like leaf blowers, chainsaws and older lawn mowers. Two-stroke engines are cheap and have better power-to-weight ratios than their four-stroke counterparts, but they’re also vastly dirtier and more inefficient, spewing out as much as one third of their fuel as unburned aerosols that contain nasty compounds like:
Newer machines tend to produce fewer emissions, but they are still far worse for the environment than car engines. According to Environment and Climate Change Canada, operating a typical lawn mower for an hour is equivalent to an average vehicle traveling 480 kilometres. Likewise, the California Air Resources Board estimates that operating 2017’s best-selling commercial leaf blower for an hour produces as much pollution as driving a 2017 Toyota Camry 1,760 kilometers. That’s the equivalent of driving from Prince George to Whitehorse, Yukon!
And unlike cars, our gas-powered lawn care equipment runs at full-throttle in one place, concentrating exhaust in our own backyards.
The upshot of all this? Using gas-powered tools to achieve a beautiful lawn contributes to high levels of localized emissions that expose nearby individuals to unnecessary and preventable health risks.
For example, ground-level ozone and fine particulate matter, which are emitted from gas-powered machinery, have been linked to conditions like heart attack, stroke, asthma and even cancer. Mounting evidence suggests that these pollutants may also contribute to developmental delays, neurological disorders and reproductive harm. Children, older adults and folks with pre-existing conditions are at particularly high risk.
Beyond creating harmful emissions, they also generate noise well above the threshold at which hearing loss can occur, potentially impacting anyone nearby who isn’t wearing hearing protection.
Canada has about 6.2 million lawns covering 142,000 acres of land. Approximately 58% of lawn mowers across the country are still gas-powered, suggesting that 3.9 million lawns are being maintained with gas-powered equipment. That’s a lot of room for improvement!
Fortunately, there are many ways to keep our yards looking top-notch without creating nasty emissions that are hard on our health and the planet.
Changing the way we care for our lawns is just one of many ways that individuals can get involved with creating a healthier, more livable city. Although adopting electric lawn equipment might not seem like much, remember that small and simple actions taken by many people can make a big difference in the quality of the air we all breathe!
Take our five minute survey to enter into PGAIR's Clean Air Day Competition for a Greenworks 80V 21" Mower and 80V 16" String Trimmer Combo (valued at approximately $800)!