Healthy Living in the North

Taking steps to improve air quality – it all adds up!

As part of our clean air contest, we asked for photos showing why clean air is important to you. Here's a beautiful blue mountain sky that one participant submitted!

As part of our clean air contest, we asked for photos showing why clean air is important to you. Here’s a beautiful blue mountain sky that one participant submitted!

Our clean air contest is nearly done (there’s still time to enter!) and, above all else, one thing is clear: northerners are passionate about air quality!

There’s still time to enter the contest. To help inspire you, here are just a few of the entries we’ve received when we asked what steps you take to reduce the amount of smoke or pollution you or your family create!

For many people, a desire to reduce smoke and pollution has changed the way they use their vehicle:

  • Many of you shared that you walk or bike instead of driving when possible. In Prince George, one participant shared that this can have a double healthy impact: “I walk to work so I get exercise and I help reduce emissions.”
  • In Burns Lake, another shared: “We reduce pollution by trying our best to carpool, as we live in a rural area, and limit our trips to and from town.”
  • In the northwest, there were a few different travel tips, including: “Walk to work … maintain our vehicles with up to date oil and air filter changes … we don’t idle our vehicles for extended periods of time.”
  • Vehicle maintenance was important in Chetwynd, too, with one person sharing that “We clean our vehicles weekly to wash off the salt and road dirt.”

Some people have taken steps to improve air quality in their home, including:

  • Practicing safe wood burning (“We only burn seasoned dry wood in our woodstove.”) or looking into alternatives to heating with wood (“Not using our fireplace other than in emergency situations such as power outages.”)
  • Some of you prefer the coziness of sweaters! (“Although we have electric heat as opposed to gas or fire, we still layer up with socks, slippers, and other warm clothes before turning the heat up.”)
  • Many of you appreciated the role of indoor and outdoor plants (“We have indoor plants and try to cultivate bee-friendly plants outdoors.”) and shared that keeping your home clean and free of allergens and dust helped you improve air quality there.

It was also wonderful to read about so many people who have quit smoking and who mentioned air quality as one of the reasons that ultimately influenced their decision to quit! If you need support to quit smoking, visit QuitNow.ca. Learn more about the benefits of quitting elsewhere on the blog.

We received so many great tips. I’m excited to keep sharing them so please keep them coming! Submit your stories and tips for your chance to win a great prize!

Improving air quality involves many different people and sectors but remember, it all adds up!

Vince Terstappen

About Vince Terstappen

Vince Terstappen is a Project Assistant with the health promotions team at Northern Health. He has an undergraduate and graduate degree in the area of community health and is passionate about upstream population health issues. Born and raised in Calgary, Vince lived, studied, and worked in Saskatoon, Victoria, and Vancouver before moving to Vanderhoof in 2012. When not cooking or baking, he enjoys speedskating, gardening, playing soccer, attending local community events, and Skyping with his old community health classmates who are scattered across the world. Vince works with Northern Health program areas to share healthy living stories and tips through the blog and moderates all comments for the Northern Health Matters blog.

Share

Air quality in the north

Landscape with mountains in background

The air we breathe has a significant impact on our health – beyond just our lungs! (Photo by Northern Health staff member Molly McRae)

Working in Public Health Protection has been rewarding. Whether it’s speaking to a mother about the cause of her baby’s stomach bug or teaching a food safety class to local food service workers, I’ve appreciated being part of the upstream efforts to prevent illness.

Now that I’m a parent to two small children and having just lost my mother to cancer, these efforts seem even more personal. Many of the choices we make each day can impact our exposures to infections and environmental contaminants. The personal care products we use, the food and water we consume, the lakes we swim in, the air we breathe – all of these can impact our health.

Recently, in my new role as Health and Resource Development Technical Advisor, I have been focusing a lot of my time on air quality.

Air quality in northern B.C.

I’ve learned a lot about air quality in the last 6 months, particularly about the amazing northerners committed to improving our air quality!

Here’s a quick sample of what I’ve learned since June – information that I think is important to share!

  • Did you know that in northern B.C., we have three very active community roundtables where stakeholders meet and tackle difficult air quality issues in their respective communities?
  • There are also air quality steering committees for the purposes of information exchange and health promotion activities.
  • There are passionate and talented scientists right here in B.C. researching what impacts our air and how this affects our health.
  • The health effects of poor air quality extend much more broadly than we’ve traditionally understood. In fact, the theme for the last BC Lung Association Air Quality and Health Workshop was “Beyond the Heart and Lungs“. Air pollution contributes negatively to many lifelong health conditions and even small improvements in air quality can have significant positive health impacts.
  • Smoke is of particular concern in the north. Why? Because it contains tiny particles called particulate matter (PM), and a large range of harmful compounds — the normal by-products of combustion. It may also contain small amounts of other proven and suspected cancer causing agents.
  • There are many sources of smoke in our airsheds and the most notable source is due to the increasing intensity and severity of wildfires in the summer.
  • I was surprised to learn, though, that air quality can be severely impacted in the winter months as well. I grew up in a home where we used both forced air and wood heat. It felt completely natural to sit in front of the woodstove to warm my toes and I have a fond association between the smell of creosote and my grandparents’ log home! Fast forward to today and I’m learning all about the harmful effects of wood smoke on the local airshed.

What can I do?

A couple ways we can reduce our impacts in the north is to only burn when absolutely necessary and to use efficient and clean burning practices. Learning about air quality is key, too! I’ve had the opportunity over the last few months to work on some key messages related to responsible wood burning to increase air quality awareness across northern B.C. You can find some of that information and more resources on Twitter, Facebook, and on Northern Health’s air quality site.

The local air quality groups in our region also have some great resources on their websites:

Finally, don’t miss the USEPA site for great information on burning and air quality.

Let’s take these steps so our families and neighbours can breathe easy!

Share your clean air tips and stories

How do you or your family reduce smoke or particulate matter during the cooler winter months? We want to read and share your stories about efficient or clean burning practices, alternatives to burning, and other strategies we can all use to minimize the smoke or particulate matter in our air.

Share your stories and tips with us this season for your chance to win a great prize! You’ll also have the chance to tell us why clean air matters to you!

Enter the contest today!

Paula Tait

About Paula Tait

Paula works in Prince George as a Health and Resource Development Technical Advisor, working collaboratively to assess and minimize health impacts related to industrial development. Born and raised in Terrace, she completed her schooling in Edmonton, and started her environmental health career in southeast Saskatchewan in 2005. She has been back in northern B.C. since 2010. Paula enjoys being creative, listening to music, and spending time with family and friends.

Share

The smoke in our air: Tell us how you contribute to cleaner air for your chance to win!

Smoky chimney

We all have a role to play in supporting cleaner air! Smoke and particulate matter don’t recognize borders! Even small reductions in smoke and particulate matter can have a large health impact.

Air quality has made international headlines recently due to an emergency situation in Delhi, India. Their fine particulate matter levels soared well above safe limits. These particles are so small they can enter deep into the lungs and cause a wide range of health problems – especially in children and people with compromised respiratory systems. Schools were shut down and people were urged to limit outdoor activity. Other mitigation measures such as limiting vehicle traffic and halting industrial operations were put into place to combat these extreme conditions.

Air quality: a local concern

The World Health Organization (WHO) has a world map that shows us how Canada compares to the rest of the world. Compared to places like India, we are very fortunate to have very clean air here in northern B.C. Yet we are not immune to poor air quality days! The Central Interior Air Zone Report (2011-2013) and the BC Lung Association 2016 State of the Air Report show us that many of our northern communities exceed provincial or federal air quality standards.

Air quality in the winter

What’s more, air quality can be even more severely impacted in the winter. Our air quality meteorologists tell us that air movement slows or stagnates when it cools down and thus lowers into our valley regions. Particulate matter accumulates in this stagnant air and levels can rise above what is considered safe.

There are many sources of particulate matter including, but not limited to, road dust, vehicle emissions, and smoke from fires. Smoke generated from residential wood heating spikes during these cooler, more stagnant air, days.

Kids & clean air

Breathing cleaner air has benefits for all of us, but children are especially susceptible to the health effects of air pollution. Their bodies are still growing and their lungs are developing. Children also have greater exposure to air pollution because they breathe in more air per kilogram of body weight and they spend more time being active outdoors. Children with asthma or other respiratory conditions are more likely to be affected. Air pollution can trigger asthma attacks and cause respiratory symptoms like coughing and throat irritation, even in healthy children.

Protecting our families, friends, and neighbours

This winter season, I want to remind us all to reduce our contributions to the smoke in our air. There are alternatives to burning wood for heat and if we must burn wood, let’s educate ourselves on how to burn more cleanly and efficiently. This will protect our families and neighbours from harmful pollutants.

If you burn with wood, here are some quick tips:

  • Split, stack, cover, and store wood for 6 months prior to use.
  • Use a moisture meter to check that wood has a moisture content of 20% or less.
  • Use an efficient CSA or EPA certified wood stove.
  • Don’t burn garbage or treated woods.
  • Don’t burn during an air quality advisory.
  • Maintain your chimney and wood burning appliance so it burns clean and is safe.

Even small reductions in smoke and particulate matter can have a large health impact!

Share your clean air tips and stories

How do you or your family reduce smoke or particulate matter during the cooler winter months? We want to read and share your stories about efficient or clean burning practices, alternatives to burning, and other strategies we can all use to minimize the smoke or particulate matter in our air.

Share your stories and tips with us this season for your chance to win a great prize! You’ll also have the chance to tell us why clean air matters to you!

Enter the contest today!

Paula Tait

About Paula Tait

Paula works in Prince George as a Health and Resource Development Technical Advisor, working collaboratively to assess and minimize health impacts related to industrial development. Born and raised in Terrace, she completed her schooling in Edmonton, and started her environmental health career in southeast Saskatchewan in 2005. She has been back in northern B.C. since 2010. Paula enjoys being creative, listening to music, and spending time with family and friends.

Share

Tales from the Man Cave: There’s no smoke without fire

Stuart Lake

Keep an eye on air quality before planning your days this summer! With wildfires raging and dry conditions so far this year, not all days will be as clear as this beautiful afternoon at Stuart Lake!

With B.C. wildfires – including plenty in northern B.C. – dominating the headlines recently, I’m worried.

I’m worried that soon – and for some of you this may already be the case – I will be stuck indoors as outside there will be two enemies of my personal health which will keep me imprisoned:

  1. The smell of smoke in the air from a forest fire, which makes me cough.
  2. That lovely sun, which recently hit 32 degrees for me, even in the shade. I took my wall thermometer off the wall to see what the temperature would be if I placed it in the sun. Within minutes it went to 42 degrees! Standing still for any length of time will do that to your skin, too! 42 degrees. Holy smokes! It was not quite a scientific experiment, but all the same, it was very hot!

The recent headlines and my past experiences during this time of year got me thinking about wellness and all the other issues related to these two conditions, like air quality advisories and sunscreen.

At one point last year, my local air quality health index was at 7, which is high risk. Given the current fire situation, I suspect that I’ll see that number again this year – some of you may have already. You can check your local air quality at bcairquality.ca.

So, what’s the advice given to those of us with respiratory ailments, children and the elderly at these levels?

Take it easy, stay indoors if you can (well, yes, it may also be plus 30!), and try and avoid strenuous activities during the period of the warning. This, I should say, also applies to the general population. If you are working outside and it’s causing you to cough, maybe you should take it easy, too. Catch up with the yard work another time.

And did I mention sun? I don’t think I have to tell folks these days that as beautiful as it is, it also harbours some dangers in the form of skin cancer from too much exposure. Use a sunscreen with an SPF of 15 or higher and spend as little time in the sun as possible. Higher SPF doesn’t mean you can stay out longer! Also, try to cover up as much skin as possible, especially if you are as fair as I am, and especially on top of your head.

Lastly, keep an eye on local air quality advisories, especially if there are forest fires out in your area as exposure to smoke and particulates can trigger asthma and worsen other respiratory ailments.

Happy holidays!

Jim Coyle

About Jim Coyle

Jim is a tobacco reduction coordinator with the men’s health program, and has a background in psychiatry and care of the elderly. In former times, Jim was director of care at Simon Fraser Lodge and clinical coordinator at the Brain Injury Group. He came to Canada from Glasgow, Scotland 20 years ago and, when not at work, Jim plays in the band Out of Alba and spends time with his family.

Share