Healthy Living in the North

Crunching the numbers to protect our health

To shed some light on a topic that is so often out of view, occurring at the level of tiny particles, I spoke with air quality meteorologist Gail Roth. She took me through a day in the life of someone who spends a lot of time amidst tiny particles with big health impacts!

How do we measure air quality?

The Ministry of Environment has two types of monitors, continuous and non-continuous, that are set up in communities all over B.C. We monitor all sorts of pollutants, including sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, and more.

Because it’s the air pollutant that most often exceeds provincial objectives, a primary area of concern is particulate matter pollution – the tiniest of particles in the air that can get stuck deep in our lungs. These are called PM2.5 – particulate matter (PM) that is 2.5 micrometres or smaller in diameter. For comparison, a human hair is approximately 60 micrometres in diameter. PM2.5 is largely generated from combustion sources (e.g., vehicles, residential wood burnings, industrial processes).

We also monitor PM10 (particulate matter that is smaller than 10 micrometres). These larger particles are mostly caused by big particles like road dust, wood dust, or pollen being broken down.

In both cases, we measure how many of these particles there are in one cubic metre of air. You’ll see this reported as micrograms per metre cubed: µg/m³.

Fire crews assessing wildfire from a helicopter

Although specific smoke conditions might change because of wind, fire behaviour, and temperature, a smoky skies advisory in your area means you can expect higher levels of particulate matter pollution. Photo courtesy of BC Wildfire Service.

What is an air quality advisory?

The provincial objective for PM2.5 levels in a 24-hour period is 25 µg/m³. When a community gets above or close to this level, we issue an air quality advisory. This lets people know that their breathing may be affected and that they should be taking action to protect their health and reduce their emissions. The annual objective, which we use to monitor long term PM2.5 levels, is 8 µg/m³.

The provincial objective for PM10 levels in a 24-hour period is 50 µg/m³. When a community gets above or close to this level, we issue a dust advisory.

If there’s a forest fire in your area, you may also see a smoky skies advisory. Although specific smoke conditions might change because of wind, fire behaviour, and temperature, a smoky skies advisory in your area means you can expect higher levels of particulate matter pollution.

What actions can I take to protect myself during these advisories?

We include these actions right in the advisories, so they can be a helpful tool in protecting your health. The overarching goal of these actions is to reduce your exposure to the poor air. Some specific actions include:

  • Avoid roads with heavy traffic and areas with wood smoke
  • Reduce or stop physical activity if breathing becomes difficult

Further actions, including staying indoors and running air cleaners, may be needed for those who are more sensitive, like seniors, children, and people with underlying medical conditions.

What else do air quality meteorologists do?

In addition to monitoring air quality and issuing public reports and advisories, there are two other main parts to our work:

  1. Technical reviews: As an example, when an industry applies for a permit for a project that might have air pollution emissions, we review the application and evaluate its potential impact on air quality in the local community and surrounding area.
  2. Supporting local airshed management groups: We help to start these groups and translate technical air quality information for them. Local members drive the groups and we’re a resource for them, providing support on the science side.

Where can I learn about advisories in my community?

I’d encourage everyone to visit bcairquality.ca. Whenever an advisory is in place, it will appear as a link on the homepage. Even if there’s no advisory, you can still find current air quality conditions for where you live as well as great resources.


More information

Do you have respiratory sensitivities or want to take extra precautions during wildfire smoke events?

There is a growing body of evidence to suggest that portable air cleaners (equipped with HEPA filters or electrostatic precipitators) are effective at reducing indoor particulate matter concentrations and the associated health effects during short smoke events.

Be sure to research products before purchasing a portable air cleaner! Learn about the type of unit you’re purchasing and the proper sizing for your space. On these devices, you’ll notice a number called the clean air delivery rate (CADR) – if you’re concerned about wildfire smoke, the CADR rating for tobacco smoke is the most relevant to look at.

When using a portable air cleaner, limit the entry of outdoor air. Keep in mind when you’re indoors and using a portable air cleaner, however, that there can be risks from increased heat and indoor-generated air pollutants.


A version of this article was originally published in the summer 2017 issue of Healthier You magazine. Read the full issue – all about healthy lungs – on ISSUU!

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. (Vince no longer works with Northern Health, we wish him all the best.)

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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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