Healthy Living in the North

Wildfire smoke: many tobacco users finding it hard to breathe!

fire fighter walking by forrest fire

Tobacco users may find that wildfire smoke is causing severe symptoms such as shortness of breath, persistent coughing, wheezing, chest tightness and increased mucous production.

I spoke with a friend who smokes cigarettes earlier this week and she said that she wasn’t able to leave the house over the weekend due to the forest fire smoke in the air.

Wildfire smoke is a mixture of particles and gas containing hundreds of chemicals, and tobacco users may find that wildfire smoke is causing severe symptoms such as shortness of breath, persistent coughing, wheezing, chest tightness and increased mucous production.

Is it a preview of what lies ahead?

If you smoke cigarettes or cigars, the toxins in tobacco smoke may be already causing severe lung irritation and the onset of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Symptoms of COPD occur when the lungs and airways lose their elasticity, the walls between air sacs are destroyed, the airways thicken and become swollen and more mucous is produced.

During times of poor air quality such as wild fire smoke, some smokers find it very hard to breathe because they already have lung disease. They may not be aware that they have COPD. Although the fires will soon be extinguished, the progression of COPD continues if tobacco users don’t quit.

In the years ahead, smokers may experience shortness of breath, persistent coughing, wheezing, chest tightness and increased mucous production every day, even when the air quality is good.

The discomfort that my friend has been experiencing is helping her make a quit plan. She doesn’t want to feel like that again!

If you are concerned about your health or the health of others, there are resources to help quit using tobacco.

For help quitting smoking visit quitnow.ca or call 1-877-455-2233.

Access information and FREE nicotine patches, gum, lozenges or inhalers through the BC Smoking Cessation Program. Visit your pharmacy to access these products. You may be eligible for assistance to purchase smoking cessation medications.

Nancy Viney

About Nancy Viney

Nancy is a registered nurse working in Northern Health’s population health team. She often imagines a day when no one in northern British Columbia suffers from the harmful effects of tobacco. In her time off, she enjoys spending time with her family and friends, especially her two little grandchildren! Nancy also enjoys quilting, knitting, crocheting and many other home spun crafts.

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Breathe easier during smoky skies

Smoky skies above the city

Protect yourself during smoky skies bulletins. Photo by Barb Oke.

The province is currently inundated with numerous wildfires. Not only are fires a serious safety risk, but the smoke from these fires can be harmful to our health (especially to unborn children, children, the elderly, and those with chronic illness).

Here are some quick tips for breathing easier during a smoky skies bulletin:

  • Limit your exposure to wildfire smoke
    • Stay indoors and keep the air clean (windows/doors closed, no smoking, no burning fireplaces/candles/incense, no vacuuming, use a HEPA or EP indoor air cleaner if available).
    • Reduce the amount of time spent outdoors – avoid rigorous outdoor activities.
    • When in a vehicle, keep windows closed with air conditioning set to recirculate.
  • Visit a clean air shelter or a location that has a large volume of air that is air conditioned and filters the air (such as shopping malls, swimming pools, public libraries, etc.).
  • People with asthma or other chronic illness should activate their asthma or personal care plans. Some people may consider leaving the smoke filled area altogether.
  • Visit HealthLinkBC, call 8-1-1 (non-emergency), see your doctor, or call 9-1-1 (emergency) if you’re experiencing symptoms, ranging from eye, nose, and throat irritation to difficulties breathing and cardiovascular distress.
  • Be aware – visit bcairquality.ca for current air quality information.

Smoky conditions often happen during hot weather events, which means that it may also be important to stay cool:

  • Spend time in the coolest room in the home (e.g. basement).
  • Use an air conditioner or spend time at a location equipped with air conditioning and air filtration.
  • Take a cool bath or shower.

For information regarding wildfires, including information on wildfire status and prevention, visit the BC Wildfire Service. Report wildfires to *5555 (cell) or 1-800-663-5555.

For road updates, please contact www.drivebc.ca

For evacuation updates, please connect with Emergency Info BC: www.emergencyinfobc.gov.bc.ca

Northern Health supports the Ministry of Environment (MoE) with air quality advisories and bulletins when certain air pollutants become a concern. MoE issues Smoky Skies Bulletins when smoke can be expected in a local airshed. Unlike air quality advisories which are based on air concentrations measured at monitors, these Smoky Skies Bulletins are issued by a meteorologist who uses a number of different tools to determine that smoke is likely to enter a specified region. These bulletins can provide sooner warning to people that their health may be affected during the smoke event and may also be in affect longer than a typical advisory due to the unpredictable nature of wildfire smoke.

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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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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