Smoky skies covered the Okanagan. This is the view from Kalamalka Lake Provincial Park in the summer of 2017. (Jennifer Smith/Morning Star)

The Smokanagan, Part two: Physical health effects

“Smoke is much more dangerous than dust, no question.”

The last couple of years have been particularly bad for smoky skies in the Okanagan.

Research showed that more than 12,000 square kilometres of B.C. landscape went up in flames last year, making it the worst wildfire season on record. Conversations surrounding the topic have lowly begun ramping up as B.C. prepares for warmer weather, many expecting the wildfire trend to continue for the third summer in a row.

Michael Mehta is a professor at Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops working in the department of Geography and Environmental studies. He has been studying the physical effects and health risks of air pollution for over a decade.

“Particularly because of the last two years with the smoke, attention to air pollution and its health and psychological effects have heightened — and for good reason,” he said. “We now know that over 90 per cent of the people on the planet are not breathing safe air according to the World Health Organization and this problem has been steadily mounting. It’s a combination of natural phenomenons like wildfires and forest fires but it’s also, of course, due to various industrial practices, transportation and rapid increase in residential wood burning practices.”

Related: The Smokanagan, Part One: How wildfire smoke affects children

While dust advisories are also an issue during the spring, — especially in Vernon — he confirmed that the size of smoke particles caused by wildfires and wood burning practices, are a much bigger concern.

“Smoke is much more dangerous than dust, no question.”

He explained that this is due to the size of particulates. Dust particles are usually in the PM 10 range, meaning they are 10 microns in size. Mehta said that these are relatively large sized particles, and are not fully respirable. While they do cause health issues, they don’t move through your bloodstream in the same way smaller particles do. In contrast, smoke-sized particles are usually in the PM 2.5 range, meaning they are respirable and cause bigger issues. After being inhaled, they can move through the bloodstream and congregate in organ’s tissues. He also noted that these sized particles can move into the brain and cross the blood-brain barrier, creating additional health problems.

While he said that there isn’t much residents can do to prevent these air pollution, there are steps that individuals, governments and health authorities can take to minimize risk.

“At the level of government and regulators like Interior Health, there needs to be a lot more transparent and honest communication of the health risks because they are certainly downplaying the risk of these exposures for fear of creating a panic,” he said. “I’ve been mostly at odds with government on these issues mostly because my perspective on this is that these are real short-term risks and they don’t tend to admit that, and secondly, provincial air quality monitoring system is fairly skinny.”

Noting that the provincial government typically only has one centralized air quality monitor per city, he encourages people — especially those from rural communities — to invest in PurpleAir monitors, a proven air quality monitoring solution, for more accurate air quality information throughout communities.

“If you just relied on the provincial sensors in cities like here and across the province, you might get the false impression that everything is fine, and it might be at that central location, but somewhere down road, several kilometers away, maybe 1,000 metres higher or lower elevation, it could be significantly different,” Mehta said.

“What I’ve been finding with my work is that because of wood burning practices, slash burning and farmers who burn fields, air pollution in rural communities is significantly worse than cities in British Columbia. It’s much worse and that’s a problem because [the government] isn’t monitoring it, they’re ignoring it.”

He encouraged local school boards, community groups, and media to start encouraging people to protect themselves when there is an advisory. To prevent exposure to dangerous air, in addition to PurpleAir monitors, he suggests people invest in a good quality HEPA filtration system, and to avoid going outdoors during air advisories. If people need to go outside, he suggests using a face mask. Despite recent debates as to whether or not they work, he is adamant that they do.

“There’s not a lot we can do to prevent poor air quality but there are other things we can do individually to protect ourselves and I really encourage people to take those steps to protect their health.”

(This is the second article in a series on air quality inthe region.)

Related: Vernon dust advisory continued

Related: Okanagan air quality to deteriorate again

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