Written by: Karissa Ketter, News Writer
After repeated air quality warnings in Metro Vancouver, air quality has improved since the initial wave of smoke in early September, and the Air Quality Index has returned to normal levels. SFU health science professor Dr. Ryan Allen stated in an interview with The Peak that Vancouver’s air quality has increased due to the change in winds and “weather that came off the Pacific Ocean and pushed the smoke to our east.”
While the intense smoke has subsided in Vancouver, Dr. Allen said that forest fire outbreaks, which result in extremely poor air quality, “will become more common as our climate becomes warmer and drier” due to climate change. Air quality declined again Wednesday morning, due to smoke from California. However, “it’s not expected to be nearly as bad as earlier in September.”
Air quality is determined by the “amount and type of pollution that is emitted,” but other factors such as “wind, the stability of the atmosphere, and topography” can affect air quality. Dr. Allen noted that in recent summers, it has been common for Vancouver’s air quality to worsen due to surrounding forest fires. The fires that impacted Vancouver’s air quality this year from Washington and Oregon were spread to Vancouver by strong “winds that pushed the smoke north into Metro Vancouver and the BC interior.”
Air pollution is a combination of tiny particles, called fine particulate matter, and is an “important cause of health effects.” Forest fire smoke “produces a lot of particulate matter,” and with prolonged exposure can increase the risk of negative respiratory symptoms, such as shortness of breath.
While fires spanned the United States’ west coast, a smaller scale fire in New Westminster contributed to Metro Vancouver’s poor air quality. Dr. Allen noted that the “characteristics of the smoke from structure fires can vary quite a bit depending on what materials are being burned.”
However, localized and brief events, such as the New Westminster fire, aren’t as much of a concern for public health, according to Dr. Allen. Instead, he stated that forest fire smoke poses more of a threat, because it “can affect very large numbers of people.”
Forest fires that result in extreme worsening air quality are likely to affect those with pre-existing respiratory or cardiovascular health conditions. This would include those with asthma, chronic lung disease, and cardiovascular disease.
Dr. Allen noted that the non-medical masks those are wearing due to COVID-19 “may also provide some protection against particle pollution,” as long as the masks are a “good fit against the face and are made of reasonably thick material.”