Healthy Living in the North

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.

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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.

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