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.

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