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Greening Up — Clean Air as Zeitgeist

Children, the elderly and pregnant women should avoid spending too much time outdoors to protect their health. Even healthy adults are encouraged to reduce strenuous outdoor activities, especially if you experience symptoms such as coughing and throat irritation.

“Every breath is a sacrament, an essential ritual.” – David Suzuki

Heard any good jokes about clean air lately?

How about clean air portrayed in novels, plays, movies, television, paintings, or songs?

Given how important breathing is to humans, isn’t it strange that clean air gets so little exposure in our popular culture?

An adult breathes an average of fourteen times a minute, exchanging about seven and a half litres of air in that time.

From its first breath, an infant living a normal life span will breathe about 650 million more times, roughly 19,000 times a day.

Clean air should be the spirit of our age.

We seldom appreciate or even notice pure, fresh air but we know instantly when there’s smoke, rotting fish, perfume or lilacs in our environment.

Of course, the air we are all currently breathing in much of British Columbia is no laughing matter. It is however top of the news cycle.

Wildfire smoke from forest fires in California, Oregon and Washington states has flooded over us, turning the sun into an orange ball and blanketing us in a cloud of ominous smoke.

As I write this just after 1 p.m. on Sunday, September 13th, the Castlegar Zinio Park air quality index for fine particulate matter has a reading of 445.5 micrograms per cubic metre. On a scale of 1 to 10, Castlegar is currently a 10+, indicating a very high health risk.

Castlegar made news the previous day when the concentration of fine particles with a diameter of 2.5 microns reached a chart-topping 463.7, while a value of 25 is what is considered safe and a provincial air quality objective.

(Castlegar is the nearest air monitoring station to Nelson. Twenty-six monitoring stations around the province provide air quality information to 80 percent of the B.C. population in 14 communities.)

“As long as there's fuel to burn, your chances of having large fires increases when you increase temperatures. It's that simple.” – Park Williams, climate scientist at Columbia’s Lamont–Doherty Earth Observatory

Fine particulates are usually the main components of wildfire smoke. These are microscopic solid or liquid particles, suspended in the air, with a size of 2.5 micrometers (millionth of a meter) or less (about 1/30th the diameter of a human hair).

Given their ability to penetrate deep into the respiratory system and even the bloodstream, PM2.5 particles are considered the biggest public health concern from outdoor air pollution in B.C.

A special air quality bulletin from Environment Canada states “Wildfire smoke is a constantly-changing mixture of particles and gasses which includes many chemicals that can harm your health.”

Children, the elderly and pregnant women should avoid spending too much time outdoors to protect their health. Even healthy adults are encouraged to reduce strenuous outdoor activities, especially if you experience symptoms such as coughing and throat irritation.

People with symptoms should go to their health-care provider, walk-in clinic or emergency department depending on the severity of symptoms. For general information about smoke contact HealthLink BC available toll-free, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week at 8-1-1, or via the web at www.healthlinkbc.ca.

“I don’t know that people have taken to heart that wildfires are worse and worse in part because of climate change and not getting better anytime soon.” – John Abatzoglou, Associate Professor of Geography at the University of Idaho

Dr. Mike Flannigan, a professor with the Department of Renewable Resources at the University of Alberta, says inhaling smoke from a wildfire can be like smoking two packs of cigarettes a day, depending on its thickness.

In his presentation to the B.C. Lung Association’s annual workshop on air quality and health in February 2019, Flannigan said the smoke is like “a chemical soup” that can be trapped in the lungs and cause myriad health problems.

“They are all kinds of particles, mercury, carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, methane … there’s a whole long list,” he added.

Flannigan told his audience that the number of wildfires has doubled since the 1970s.

He said fire is not bad, but a natural part of the boreal forest. “We need to learn to live with fire,” he said.

Flannigan stressed that we need to be better prepared for more fires.

“We’re seeing the effects of climate change. Saddle up and get ready for it.”

But bad air quality is not just restricted to wildfire season.

The World Health Organization estimates that air pollution kills seven million people worldwide every year. WHO data shows that 9 out of 10 people breathe air containing high levels of pollutants.

Combine that with the fact we are living in the midst of a COVID-19 pandemic and anyone with diabetes, high blood pressure, obesity, heart disease, and chronic lung disease are already at some disadvantage based on their lung function.

Air pollution affects sensitivity to COVID-19 by degrading immune response, thereby increasing our risk for infection.

The State of the Air 2020 report, published by the B.C. Lung Association says poor air quality results in 1,600 premature deaths in our province annually from heart and lung disease and costs $11.5 billion.

The report has a section on the locations in the province with the highest measurements of PM2.5, Ozone, Nitrogen Oxide, and Sulphur Dioxide. Of local note, the Trail-Butler Park monitoring site recorded the highest one-hour SO2 (sulphur dioxide) reading in 2019 at 131.3 parts per billion, far exceeding the provincial objective of 75 ppb.

Air is needed by humans from the moment of birth until our time ends.

Air is the breath of life and we must learn to keep it pure and fresh.

It wouldn’t hurt to see and hear clean air mentioned in our popular music, print articles, cyber culture, sports, entertainment, leisure, fads, advertising and television.

Now, more than ever, clean air should be the defining spirit or mood at this time in history.

Michael Jessen is the author of more than 800 articles relating to the environment. He is the Nelson area director of the B.C. Lung Association and lives at Longbeach near Balfour. He can be reached at zerowaste@shaw.ca

RESOURCES

When you can't breathe, nothing else matters is one of the slogans used by the B.C. Lung Association, an organization with a vision of all people living free of lung disease.  It has a web page on Wildfire Smoke and Health.

The B.C. government air quality health index website has an informative Frequently Asked Questions (FQA) section about wildfire smoke.

The government of Canada has a helpful website on wildfire smoke and your health.

The B.C. Centre for Disease Control has a number of downloadable fact sheets with information about wildfire smoke and its health impacts, including information on how to prepare for wildfire season.

Firesmoke.ca provides a map showing the extent of the wildfire smoke currently over B.C.

CBC carried an excellent story on September 12 about the role of climate change in extreme fires in Western Canada and the U.S.

David Suzuki’s book The Sacred Balance: Rediscovering Our Place in Nature has a beautifully written chapter “affirming the priority of air as the bottom line for life.”

One reviewer has described Joe Sherman’s Gasp! The Swift and Terrible Beauty of Air as “a masterfully inventive biography of air, weaving together geology and history, myth and science, to deepen our understanding and appreciation of life’s most precious gas.”

In her book Choked: The Age of Air Pollution and the Fight For a Cleaner Future, author Beth Gardiner travels the world to meet the scientists who have transformed our understanding of pollution’s effects on the human body, and to trace the economic forces and political decisions that have allowed it to remain at life-threatening levels. She also focuses on real-world solutions, and on inspiring stories of people fighting for a healthier future.

Dr. Sarah Henderson, a senior environmental health scientist at the B.C. Centre for Disease Control, has a video presentation on impacts of wildfire smoke on air quality and its implications for public health.

An article entitled “The Toxic Truth About Wood Smoke” appeared in the November 2018 issue of the B.C. Lung Association magazine Your Health.