Smoke in the Air - What You need to Know

Aug 24, 2018

By Barret Procyshyn

We have had an amazing summer of hot dry weather. I think if any of us had a complaint, it wouldn't be the weather itself but the smoke we have had to deal with. With over 500 fires burning in British Columbia, I don't remember a summer where we have had so much smoke in the air. I have read news stories about street lights staying on all day in some northern B.C. towns and the Kelowna airport this week was reporting time where visibility was less than one km. Many outdoor athletic competitions are being cancelled where the smoke is thick. NASA images from space show the smoke across the prairies.

As the smoke keeps drifting in and interfering with our outdoor activities, there are also many questions, concerns and complaints about how it affects our breathing and our health. Experts and health care professionals all seem to agree that short term exposure to the smoke we are experiencing has low risks for a healthy person.

The Air Quality Health Index or AQHI is used to help understand the impact of air quality on health. It is a health protection tool used to make decisions to reduce short-term exposure to air pollution by adjusting activity levels during increased levels of air pollution. AQHI pays attention to people who are sensitive to air pollution. It provides them with advice on how to protect their health during air quality levels associated with low, moderate, high and very high health risks. In western Canada, the index has been hitting over 10, putting the air quality in the worst possible rating category. In Manitoba, the index has been measuring anywhere up to a 3.

An index rating of 3 still poses low health risks. Anything higher than that means someone with heart or breathing problems is at greater risk, especially when doing strenuous activities. At levels of around 10 like they are in B.C. health Canada recommends completely avoiding any outdoor strenuous activity. If you think it was bad in this area, Kamloops recorded a level of 49 last week.

AQHI Table


When a forest fire emits smoke into the air the emissions include particulate matter, carbon monoxide, atmospheric mercury, ozone-forming chemicals and volatile organic compounds. While long term effects are sometimes hard to measure, in the short term your lungs ingest these particles and create and allergic response. This includes extra mucous production and inflammatory responses that tighten the airways.

As mentioned the best way to prevent problems from the smoke is to avoid it, but this does not mean wearing a mask because it can be counterproductive. The masks often do not fit well around the face and they increase resistance to breathing. You have to breath harder to get the same amount of air. As you breathe harder, you breathe deeper and toxins will be ingested further into your respiratory system.

Spending time inside large public building is recommended because the filtration systems these buildings have in place can effectively filter out air particles. This includes movie theatres, malls and sports facilities. In home air purifiers can be an option, but only if they are meant to function in the size of space they are in. The filters in them also need to be changed regularly.

If you are asthmatic, in addition from not exerting yourself outdoors, you need to make sure you are using your medication properly. Ensure you are using your preventative inhalers regularly and increase the dose if required. While preventative inhalers are often expensive, and you do not feel them helping with your shortness of breath, you need to use them religiously when smoke is in the air. Myself and my colleague Trevor Shewfelt are both certified respiratory educators so if you have questions about your medications please ask!

Just like the weather, all we can do is hope the smoke clears soon so we can enjoy sunshine and clean air for the rest of the summer.


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