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Public needs to be ‘armed’ with air quality data as wildfire smoke pollutes the sky

What On Earth18:49How to protect vulnerable people from wildfire smoke

Poor air quality caused by an unprecedented wildfire season in Canada has some experts saying now is the time to bolster capacity for monitoring pollution.

Air quality is typically monitored by federal and provincial governments through sophisticated equipment. According to Environment Canada, 286 sites in every province and territory make up the National Air Pollution Surveillance program. Some municipalities are also contributing hyper-local data to provincial programs with off-the-shelf monitoring devices.

But there are gaps in the coverage, especially in rural areas, said Dr. Emily Brigham, a respirologist and assistant professor at the University of British Columbia.

“Really to advance health equity and environmental health equity, we need to know the quality of our air around us, and the first step with that is making sure that we have high-quality air monitors,” she told CBC Radio’s What On Earth.

Warnings about smog and wildfire smoke have become more common as climate change intensifies, and monitoring pollution levels is increasingly important given the potential health effects on people with pre-existing conditions.

With more local data, Brigham said, people can make better decisions for both vulnerable family members and themselves about whether it’s safe to go outdoors.

People standing inside a tower take pictures through the windows of the setting sun blanketed in haze from wildfires.
People standing in the CN Tower in Toronto take photos through the windows of the setting sun, covered in haze from wildfires burning in Alberta and northern B.C., on May 18. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Employing community-level and personal air quality monitors that fill gaps between government-run monitors can provide that essential information.

“I’ve said recently that blue skies can be a red herring, and that really is a statement … around the fact that you may not always be able to see the dangers that are around you,” said Christopher Lam, president and CEO of the B.C. Lung Foundation.

Wildfire smoke led to fatal asthma attack: parents

An example of just how dangerous poor air quality can be occurred earlier this month, when Carter Vigh, a nine-year-old boy from 100 Mile House, B.C., died following an asthma attack his parents say was made worse by wildfire smoke.

Carter had spent the day outdoors without symptoms, but by evening, he began to cough. As the cough became progressively worse, he was taken to hospital and died that night.

“Asthma exacerbations really are a product of multiple exposures many times,” said Brigham, who did not treat Carter.

WATCH | Parents remember son who died from asthma attack:

Parents remember ‘perfect little boy’ who died after asthma attack

James and Amber Vigh said they and their nine-year-old son, Carter, took his asthma seriously all of his life. Carter died in hospital on Tuesday.

“Each individual who has asthma may have different sensitivities, and being aware of what those are and trying to avoid them to the degree that you can, it’s really important.”

In Carter’s case, the closest air quality monitor to 100 Mile House is in Williams Lake, B.C., nearly 100 kilometres away. Lam called the coverage “inadequate.”

In a statement to What On Earth, B.C.’s Ministry of Environment and Climate Change Strategy said that although it doesn’t currently have a monitor at 100 Mile House, it “evaluates monitoring proposals presented by local governments and community stakeholders on a continuous basis.” It previously had a monitor in the municipality from 1993 to 2015, the statement reads.

For its part, Environment and Climate Change Canada said it is working on a pilot project with the University of Northern British Columbia, located in Prince George, B.C., to provide low-cost air quality sensors to rural communities “to assess the potential for this new technology to improve Air Quality Health Index (AQHI) forecasting.”

Empowering local residents

The city of Courtenay, B.C., on the east coast of Vancouver Island, installed three air quality monitors on public buildings this past spring, and six more are coming online in the fall.

Jeanniene Tazzioli, the city’s manager of engineering and environmental projects, said the program is a way to measure wintertime emissions from wood-burning stoves in the city. The data is also reported to the provincial government as part of a broader air quality tracking program.

People in the distance along a long lakeshore watch a vast, long plume of white smoke billow over the lake from behind forested hills.
People on a beach in Kamloops, B.C., watch smoke from the Ross Moore Lake wildfire, which was discovered on July 21. (Doug Herbert/CBC)

But this year’s record-breaking wildfire season in the province has been a good “test run” for the monitors, she said.

“It’s a way of verifying the cause, or verifying the presence of fine particulate matter, when we see that haze in the air.”

The sensors, purchased from Utah-based PurpleAir, have been collecting data since April, and those readings are included on maps for residents to consult. The lower the reading, the better the air quality, she said.

Tazzioli said she hopes the sensors give local residents information they need to make decisions about their health. “Understanding the problem is the start to identifying effective solutions,” she said.

B.C.’s Environment Ministry told What On Earth that while it uses data from a variety of sources, including PurpleAir sensors, they do not provide the same level of accuracy as ministry-run systems.

Instead, they’re “usually useful for detecting the presence/absence of smoke and in describing the spatial variability of PM2.5 across a community,” it said, referring to harmful fine particulate matter 2.5 microns in size.

Filling in the gaps

It was dust from a nearby gravel pit that inspired PurpleAir’s founder and CEO, Adrian Dybwad, to start measuring the air quality in his Salt Lake City neighbourhood in 2015.

“Every day I’d see the dust and I’d just ask myself, ‘I wonder how much stuff that really is,'” he said.

The nearest government-run air quality monitor — what he calls a “reference” monitor — was more than 30 kilometres away. At the time, he couldn’t find a suitable air quality monitor out of the box, so he built his own.

A cylindrical device with a metal plate on the back is held in a women's left hand. A purple cloud logo reads Purple Air, with a QR code next to it.
Air quality monitoring devices have been installed in Courtenay, B.C., near schools and city buildings. The monitors provide information to residents, and the data is also reported to the provincial government as part of a broader air quality tracking program. (Submitted by the City of Courtenay)

PurpleAir now sells monitors for both outdoor and indoor use, and the data from those sensors is crowdsourced to offer users a broader picture of air quality around the world. Various tech companies are also selling internet-connected air quality monitors for both indoor and outdoor use.

Dybwad said customers buy them for a variety of reasons — from health to simple curiosity. “They do things like running or cycling, and they want to know when to go out or not go out,” he said.

“We’ve also been told that people that have got kids with asthma benefit from PurpleAir in that it helps them to make decisions … and the symptoms are improved simply by just not going outside when there’s bad air quality.”

PurpleAir sensors work differently from more sophisticated government-run reference monitors. The company’s sensors use laser counters to measure the level of PM2.5 in the air. Federal government sensors, however, measure more pollutants, including sulphur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, ozone, fine particulate matter and carbon monoxide.

Still, Dybwad said the data can be corrected and provides accurate trend readings in line with federal air quality measurement scales, including Canada’s AQHI.

“If you have a network of these sensors with the reference methods interspersed in amongst them, the reference sensors give you a way to calibrate these sensors and therefore fill in the gaps and add extra information that you just certainly would not have before,” he said.

Personal and policy changes needed

As climate change increases the frequency and severity of wildfires, Dr. Brigham and the B.C. Lung Foundation’s Lam said that both personal- and policy-level changes are needed to protect vulnerable people.

“There is a much longer and larger picture that needs to be accounted for about climate change,” Lam said.

“But in the meantime, citizens need to be armed with ways that they can protect themselves in the short term.”

WATCH | How smoke from wildfires affects millions of Canadians:

Wildfire smoke impacts millions of Canadians across the country

Smoky, hazy skies are again blanketing parts of Ontario, Quebec, western Canada and the eastern half of the United States, pulling down air quality to dangerous levels. At one point Toronto recorded the worst air quality levels in the world.

That can include deploying air filtration systems in homes when air quality is poor — and offering financial support to those who need them. Brigham said the federal government provides a tax credit for equipment such as air filtration systems to people with certain health conditions.

And just as important is ensuring Canadians are armed with air quality data regardless of where they live, the experts said.

“The short term really can provide some devastating consequences if we’re not paying attention to this,” Lam said, “and I think it’s accelerating at a rate that we really have to pay attention.”

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