Dirty air putting residents at risk
Smoke from raging wildfires casts harmful haze over the city
The typical weekly routine for Margaret Birrell, an active 75-year-old, would include exercises at home, a daily brisk walk in her Vancouver neighbourhood and at least three visits to the South Granville Seniors Centre for lunch or fellowship.
But the poor air quality — B.C.’s air quality health index pegged Metro Vancouver at seven out of 10 on Wednesday morning, and the eastern Fraser Valley as high as nine — had her wheezing and puffing.
“I got really sick and I couldn’t breathe,” she said.
“I went to VGH. I was sucking air.”
After a battery of tests, she was told she wasn’t suffering from a respiratory ailment, but should cut out any strenuous exercise while the sky was socked in, and that’s had her cutting back on her social activities.
Birrell may be among those causing a small increase in the number of residents in the Metro Vancouver and Fraser Valley areas showing up at hospital emergency rooms this week.
Spokeswomen for both health authorities said ERs don’t keep statistics on what caused a patient’s ailment — such as respiratory distress — but said anecdotally, ERs see a greater number of patients with breathing issues during times of smog.
And at St. Paul’s lung clinic, “They’re seeing some lung clinic patients in extra distress because of the smoke,” said Tiffany Akins, a Vancouver Health Authority spokeswoman.
The smoke has drifted in from the hundreds of wildfires burning across the province, fires that caused the provincial government to declare a state of emergency on Wednesday.
The fine particulate matter from the wildfires is causing the haze over much of the province and is the reason for the air quality advisory for Metro Vancouver and the Fraser Valley and a smoke bulletin for virtually the rest of the province.
Fine particulate matter, also known as PM2.5, refers to airborne solid or liquid droplets with a diameter of 2.5 micrometres or less. PM2.5 can easily penetrate indoors because of its small size.
Dr. James Lu, a medical health officer for Vancouver Coastal Health, said the poor air quality can affect the elderly, young children and those with heart or lung disease or diabetes more than the average healthy adult.
He said people who are vulnerable or even healthy people with symptoms, such as shortness of breath, a chest tightness, itchy eyes or coughing, should reduce or reschedule outdoor activities.
“For most of us, it’s how we’re feeling because of the smog that’s going to guide us,” he said.
Lu didn’t know of any scientific data comparing inhaling high levels of PM2.5 to smoking cigarettes, but he said there is a new app that does just that.
The app, developed earlier this year by Brazilian designer Marcelo Coelho and Paris-born app developer Amaury Martiny with help from a University of California, Berkeley professor, uses realtime pollution data to figure out how many cigarettes you “smoke” while living in various areas.
In Beijing, the equivalent was four cigarettes a day, Los Angeles a half-cigarette, Paris three to six cigarettes a day and Delhi a whopping 20.
In Metro Vancouver on Wednesday, breathing the air was the equivalent of smoking 3.3 ciga- rettes, according to the app. In Chilliwack, residents smoked the equivalent of seven cigarettes on Wednesday. The rule of thumb, the app said, is one cigarette a day is the rough equivalent of a PM2.5 level of 22.
Lu said he had mixed feelings about equating breathing with cigarette smoking because he wasn’t sure the calculation was scientifically based.
But, he said, “It’s a good way of impressing upon people how air pollution affects us.”
He said the mixture of air pollutants isn’t identical in cigarette smoke and smog, “but it does provide people with a reference point” on how dangerous smog can be.
“It’s higher than you think,” he said. “It gives people a kind of ballpark sense and it raises awareness of the dangers of air pollution,” said Lu, adding breathing in poor air for a short period of time isn’t going to do the same damage as smoking every day for years.
Dr. Michael Schwant, a medical health officer for Fraser Health, who wasn’t aware of the app, said such a comparison “could be helpful for messaging.”
Margaret Birrell, 75, says she started feeling “really sick and I couldn’t breathe” when she went for her brisk daily walk on Wednesday. After a battery of tests, doctors blamed the city’s poor air quality.