Healthy Living in the North

Dealing with the smoke: protecting ourselves and our families

Most of us take clean air for granted. That is…. until the sky turns gray with smoke or we wake up to an eerie Armageddon-like morning while the sun hides behind a thick layer of cloud. At those times, we quickly start to think about how we can best protect ourselves and our families from the smoke.  I have young children, one of which has asthma, so this has been foremost on my mind over the last couple of smoky weeks.

Smoky sky landscape

August 17th, 9:30 AM Armageddon morning from my office.

Because I work in air quality at Northern Health, I have access to some great and easy to follow advice (and you can find it on the NH website too). Here are some strategies that my family and I have been following to keep us healthy during these smoky days:

Check on medication:
Since my son has asthma, the first thing I did was to make sure that his asthma management plan was up to date, that his regular medication was filled, and that we had enough rescue medication on hand to be able to manage his condition. I have been helping him to understand and follow his asthma management plan and keeping tabs on whether or not it is working. He knows when and how to use his rescue medication and we have talked about when we would go to the doctor for additional support.

Stay indoors:
While everyone reacts differently to wildfire smoke, it is important to listen to your body and reduce outdoor strenuous activity during very smoky conditions. Healthy individuals can still go outside and be active during less smoky periods, but for those with chronic conditions, the recommendation is to stay away from rigorous outdoor activity altogether when there is smoke in the air. Because of this, we have been keeping the kids indoors and keeping them occupied with various indoor activities. This has included activities like building with Lego, beading, and edible slime-making, and (for the safety of my breakables and all of our sanity) also more active activities, like going to the pool and our local civic centre. Public facilities, like community halls, malls, libraries, and pools often have better filtration systems and can offer a nice reprieve from being stuck in your home.

Children doing indoor activities.

Making beads inside with the air purifier and smoky skies as backdrop. Photo credit: Franny Steele.

Child at pool

Pool time fun during smoky days. Photo credit: Franny Steele

Keep inside air clean:
Of course, when staying indoors, it’s important to try to keep the indoor air clean. We try to open windows and doors only when needed. I also have two HEPA air purifiers running in the house. One of these is set up in my asthmatic son’s room so that he has a “clean” place to sleep at night. The other is in our common room where we spend most of our time. HEPA air purifiers are recommended over electrostatic precipitators (which can produce ozone) for those with respiratory conditions and the research (and my own experience) tells me that they really work!

It’s a good bet that this won’t be our last smoky summer, so even if you don’t have access to an air purifier this year, my recommendation would be to keep an eye open for deals on air purifiers for next summer season. I bought ours on sale for less than $50 each and they have been well worth it!

Stay put:
After posting multiple “Armageddon-like” photos on my Facebook page, I had calls from family located in other parts of the province, asking if we needed a place to evacuate to. At first I was surprised to learn that the public health advice for smoky conditions is not to evacuate, but it made sense once I understood the reasoning. One reason is that smoky conditions can change very rapidly. It is very possible that by the time we left our smoky hometown and drove elsewhere, the winds would have shifted and cleared our hometown air while socking in our new location. Smoke can travel for very long distances. With the number of fires burning in BC right now, we would need to travel quite far to find a place that couldn’t be impacted with a change in wind direction. I recently flew from Vancouver to Prince George and we were flying above smoky skies the entire way! Of course, evacuating is also stressful (especially with young children) and can be costly. On a regional scale, community wide evacuations for smoke can take important resources away from those whose safety is directly threatened by the wildfire.

Smoky sky comparison photos

Smoke conditions change rapidly! This photo is taking four hours apart from the same location. While still smoky, the smoke cleared up significantly between 9:30 am to 1:30 pm.

Don’t bother with masks:
Unless you’re required to as part of your work or have been advised by a physician, don’t bother wearing masks. Surgical masks (the thin white ones you can buy at a drug or hardware store) offer little protection from the fine smoke particulates. The ones that do (called N95 masks) are quite bulky, are harder to breathe through, need to be fit tested, can’t be fit tested on people with facial hair, and don’t fit children. The best line of defense is to seek cleaner air! Thank goodness, since I think asking the kids to wear masks would not have gone over well with them.

Don’t panic:
While very smoky days can be freaky, especially when you or your loved one has a chronic condition, I feel better knowing that most effects will go away quickly when the smoke clears. In a month from now when we are rummaging through our closets to find our winter gear, this will likely be a far off memory.

Barb Oke

About Barb Oke

Barb is a healthy community environments lead for Northern Health. Her passion is her family, and most of what she does to stay active and healthy centers around activities such as biking, hiking, walking, skiing, swimming and boating, where the whole family can be involved.


Easter potlucks and food safety

Potluck items on a table

Do your Easter plans include a potluck? Take steps to make sure that your party is not just fun and delicious, but safe, too!

With Easter just around the corner, many people are preparing to gather family and friends for a feast around the table. Potlucks are a popular idea for get-togethers, helping to take some of the burden off of the host. Take steps to make sure that your potluck isn’t just fun, but healthy and safe, too!

Keeping food safe, particularly food prepared at home and brought to another location, is very important in reducing the risk of foodborne illness outbreaks.

Most cases of foodborne illness start in home kitchens not because of the food but because of how the food is prepared. The familiar symptoms many people attribute to “stomach flu” such as nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, cramps, fever, headache and muscle pain may not be the flu but rather foodborne illness. For some people – the very old, the very young, pregnant women and those who have a chronic illness – a foodborne illness can be life threatening.

Potluck meals bring with them the potential for food handling errors that should be avoided. Some of the more common errors include leaving perishable food at room temperature for too long (longer than 2 hours), cooking large amounts of food ahead of time and cooling it improperly, or failing to keep hot foods hot and cold foods cold. Hot foods should be held at 60 C or above (above 140 F) and cold foods at 4 C or below (40 F).

Here’s what you should think about before you decide what to bring to your next potluck:

  1. If the item is perishable, will you be able to keep it cold or hot until it is served?
  2. Will you be able to heat the food or keep it warm once you arrive at the event?
  3. Will there be refrigeration available at the event so foods can be kept cold?

If there are leftovers, or in the event that dishes are prepared in advance of the event, ensure that they are cooled in a timely fashion. Proper cooling requires bringing the food from 60 C to 20 C within two hours and from 20 C to 4 C within four hours. Large dishes can be separated into smaller dishes to expedite the process. When reheating leftovers, ensure they reach an adequate temperature of 74 C.

Here are four simple food safety rules to remember:

  1. Keep hot food hot (above 140 F).
  2. Keep cold food cold (below 40 F).
  3. Keep hands, work surfaces and utensils clean.
  4. Never leave perishable food out of the refrigerator for more than two hours.
Neelam Hayer

About Neelam Hayer

Neelam works as an Environmental Health Officer in Prince George. She completed her BSc in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at UNBC before graduating from BCIT's Environmental Health program in 2009. Neelam grew up in northern B.C., so being back in Prince George was like coming back home for her. In her spare time, she enjoys travelling, hiking, playing soccer, trying out healthy new recipes, and spending time with family and friends.


Food safety: a lifelong commitment

This month, we want to know how you are preparing for the future by investing in your health! Tell us (or show us) what you do to invest in your body, your mind, and your relationships for your chance to win great weekly prizes and a $150 grand prize! To inspire you, we’ll be featuring regular healthy aging content on the Northern Health Matters blog all month long!

Raw chicken on a plate with quote from article overlaid

Food safety is a key part of healthy aging!

Did you know that food safety is especially important for healthy aging?

Older adults and seniors are more susceptible to contracting foodborne illnesses because of changes to vital organs as well as aging and changing body systems.

As we age, our organs and immune system also tend to weaken so aren’t able to fight pathogenic bacteria like our healthy adult systems could (or can!). Therefore, it is very important for older adults to practice safe food handling, preparing, and consuming.

Just one tragic example of this recently took place at a church potluck in New Brunswick, where foodborne illness caused the death of an 87-year-old woman and made 30 others ill.

Bessie Scott, 87, was remembered at her funeral Friday, as a wonderful great-grandmother who loved to garden and create handiwork. Her passing was noted in the provincial legislature. Dr. Jennifer Russell, New Brunswick’s acting Chief Medical Officer, says the cause of the gastrointestinal illness that killed Scott has not been confirmed, but she suspects infected poultry. ‘The most likely culprit probably is going to turn out to be the bacteria Clostridium perfringens,’ she says.

Clostridium perfringens is estimated to cause nearly a million cases of foodborne illness each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which also notes that “C. perfringens infection often occurs when foods are prepared in large quantities and kept warm for a long time before serving.”

Make a culture of food safety a lifelong commitment to minimize the risk of foodborne illness! As you age, your immunity is weakened and you may not be able to fight bacteria as easily as if you were a healthy young adult. With a balanced, nutritional diet, good food safety practices, and making wise food choices, you’ll have the healthy aging fuel you need!

Are safe food practices part of how you invest in healthy aging? Let us know for your chance to win!

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Yvonne Liang

About Yvonne Liang

Yvonne is an Environmental Health Officer for the Northern Interior and is based in Prince George. Prior to moving to Prince George, Yvonne lived and worked in southern Ontario and Fort St. John, B.C. She loves to do artwork, paint, and knit during her free time.