If that grey, smoky haze over Vancouver Island and Metro Vancouver has got you worried, here are the answers, courtesy of Vancouver Coastal Health, to a few of your burning questions about air quality.
But first, let’s start at the beginning.
Why is the sky hazy?
The grey haze you’re seeing is due to high concentrations of fine particulate matter due to smoke from the B.C. wildfires. Many of those fires are caused by lightning strikes and dry forest conditions.
The haze will come and go depending on how bad the wildfires are, what the wind is like and whether or not there’s been recent rain.
OK, but what is “fine particulate matter”?
Smoke from those fires contains a variety of pollutants, including carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, volatile organic compounds and trace amounts of heavy metals, and changes depending on what type of material is burning.
Fine particulate matter, known as PM2.5, consists of airborne solid or liquid droplets with a diameter of 2.5 micrometres or less. For context, a human hair is 70 micrometers in diameter! These particles are so small, they can only be spotted with an electron microscope.
How is the air quality measured?
Throughout B.C., there are provincially-managed air quality measuring stations. The air quality health index (AQHI) is measured on a scale of 1 to 10+, 1 being the “low risk” end of the scale and 10+ being the “very high risk” end.
There’s also an AQHI app available for download on smartphones here.
How might this air affect me?
Each person’s body will respond differently to wildfire smoke, with some at higher risk than others. Some of the health effects include:
• Your lungs will have more trouble getting oxygen into your blood.
• Your lungs could be irritated and cause an immune response, which could mean inflammation in other parts of your body too.
• Eye irritation, runny nose, sore throat, mild cough, phlegm production, wheezy breathing or headaches are common.
• More serious effects include shortness of breath, severe cough, dizziness, chest pain or heart palpitations. If you experience any of these, you should visit your doctor or a walk-in clinic.
Is this air dangerous to breathe or will it have lasting effects on my health?
For healthy individuals, once the air clears, most health effects should clear as well. However, Vancouver Coastal Health says there’s not a lot of research on longer-lasting health effects associated with seasonal wildfire smoke so caution is advised until there is more scientific information.
But those with health issues, infants, pregnant women and anyone with lung conditions should be careful — they’re most likely to experience long-term health issues with exposure to the wildfire smoke.
Who is most at risk?
Those with chronic health conditions or who are dealing with an acute illness will be most at risk of experiencing irritation or health effects due to the air quality. It can show itself in physical or mental ways (ie. trouble breathing or thinking clearly).
Those with asthma or obstructive pulmonary disease, conditions such as heart disease, diabetes, cancer or mental illness should also be wary of their exposure to the haze.
Infants are also vulnerable, as are pregnant woman and foetuses. Anyone caring for infants, such as childcare facilities, should consider using an air filter or air cleaner. Kids should have their time outdoors limited during periods of low air quality, as their lungs are still developing.
While the air quality may not affect you personally, health officials are reminding the public to keep an eye out for family members, friends and neighbours who may experience health issues during this period.
How can I avoid the smoke or prevent my exposure to it?
The particles in the air are so small that they can easily find their way inside homes. Here are some ways to try to limit your exposure:
• Breathe slowly and drink lots of water. The faster you breathe, the more smoke you inhale into your body. Drinking water will help your body flush out whatever you breathe in.
• Limit the amount of time you spend outdoors. Consider exercising in a gym instead of going for a run. Try and move outdoor activities for kids into an indoor space where there is cooler air.
• Use a portable air cleaner with HEPA filtration or electrostatic precipitation. This can remove unwanted particles from indoor air. But do your research — electrostatic precipitators can produce trace amounts of ozone gas that can irritate some lungs. Here’s a PDF bulletin from Vancouver Coastal Health with guidelines on how to purchase an air cleaner.
• Homes with forced air heating and/or air conditioning can be fitted with special filters and different settings to minimize the amount of outdoor air that comes into your home.
• Out for the day? You can head to a library, community centre or shopping mall for a break. Most of these places are outfitted with air conditioning and air filtration systems.
• If you’re driving, keep your windows up and the air condition on. Use the recirculate setting to prevent outdoor air being piped into your car.
• Industrial and outdoor workers should consider being fitted for a respirator if not already using one.
Is it true that the particles are so small, they can get into my blood?
In a 2017 study at the University of Edinburgh, researchers wanted to show how nanoparticles might enter the human body and accumulate in the blood stream or in arteries.
The study had one group of subjects breathe in air filled with harmless gold nanoparticles. The particles could be detected in the subjects’ blood within minutes; traces of the particles could still be found in the subjects’ blood and urine up to three months later.
A second phase of the study asked subjects about to undergo surgery to breathe in the same air. Researchers then found that the gold nanoparticles accumulated in the fatty plaque that can grow inside arteries.
While the gold particles are harmless, breathing in harmful nanoparticles could have an effect on your health and be linked to things such as cardiovascular disease.
So yes — particles that small can get into your bloodstream.