Health Matters with Dra. Denise – Smoke and Air Quality

kaibigan! Or is it? This issue I wanted to continue the theme of weather and its effects on our health. Let’s focus on another big issue we saw—and breathed–this summer: smoke. It’s pretty tough to enjoy the outdoors when there is a haze and smoky smell all around us, and the problem seems to be getting worse every year. What’s going on?

Again, this is Climate Change–a long-term shift in weather conditions marked by changes in temperature, precipitation, winds, and other indicators. The changes we are seeing include:

•warming at the Earth’s surface
• warming oceans that are becoming acidic more rapidly
•melting polar ice and glaciers
•rising sea levels
•more extreme weather events (more frequent and longer-lasting heat waves, more intense, heavy rainfall events, etc)

Wildfires are very common with Climate Change—they are due to the drying of the forest floor with elevated heat and drought. Canada recorded over 6800 fires (4.5 times the 10-year average) this year, which burned over 2.25 million hectares. Smoke from fires in western Canada affected air quality between British Columbia and western Manitoba, prompting advisories by Environment Canada. The most critical area was dry southern British Columbia and southwestern Alberta. BC declared a state of emergency as a result of the fires. Manitoba had 472 wildland fires this year which burnt 218,000 hectares.

Smoke is made up of a number of components. The unhealthiest material in wildland fire smoke is the small particles (particulate matter–a general term for a mixture of solid and liquid droplets suspended in the air). Particles that are 10 micrometers in diameter or smaller pose the greatest problems. Larger particles (>10 um) usually do not enter the lungs, although they can still irritate the eyes, nose, and throat. The smaller particles enter the lungs, making it harder to breathe or triggering cough. They can affect the lungs and heart, where they can cause serious health effects or make existing heart and lung conditions worse.

Both short term and long term particle pollution exposures have been linked with health problems. Scientific evidence shows that exposure to fine particles is likely to cause breathing effects, including asthma attacks resulting in hospital admissions and ER department visits, reduced lung development in children, and increased respiratory symptoms such as coughing, wheezing, and shortness of breath. The evidence also shows a link to cardiovascular (heart and blood vessel) effects, including heart attacks, heart failure, and strokes, which results in hospital admissions, emergency department visits, and in some cases premature death. Outdoor air pollution, including particle pollution, causes cancer in humans. There is limited evidence for a broader range of health effects associated with fine particle exposure such as developmental and reproductive effects.

Young children, the elderly, and people with heart or lung conditions, like asthma, chronic bronchitis, emphysema, and congestive heart failure are more sensitive to the adverse effects of exposure to smoke. People with diabetes, people of lower socioeconomic status, pregnant women and the developing fetus are also at risk. Those participating in sports or strenuous work outdoors may also be more susceptible, because they are breathing air deeply and rapidly. Risks increase when smoke becomes heavier and as the length of time a person is exposed increases.

When it is smoky outside, what can you do?

•Limit outdoor activities, especially if it makes you tired or short of breath.
•Stay inside and keep windows and doors closed. If you have an air conditioner set it to “re-circulate” and keep it running to help filter the air and keep you cool. If you do not have air conditioning, if possible, try spending some time in an air conditioned place (eg a mall or library) to cool off.
•Keep a close watch on at risk individuals, particularly those that live alone. Young children, elderly people and individuals with chronic conditions may be more sensitive to heat or smoke.
•If you are in your car or truck, keep the windows closed and put the air system on “re-circulate.”
•Limit any strenuous indoor activities if you have been exposed to smoke.
•Avoid cigarette smoke.
•If you have room air cleaners with HEPA filters, turn them on.
•Don’t burn anything, including wood stoves, gas stoves and even candles.
•Check local weather forecasts and the Manitoba Sustainable Development – Fire Program website for information on fire conditions in your area.
•If you live in the Brandon or Winnipeg area, check the local Air Quality Health Index, for updates on air quality conditions.

The AQHI factors in the concentrations of 3 major components of air pollution:

nitrogen dioxide (related to traffic, comes out of vehicle tailpipes, increases during rush hour), ozone (formed by a complex chemical reaction in the air from other pollutants and requires sunlight and heat to form), and PM 2.5 (fine particulate matter <2.5 um diameter). The resulting ratings range from 1 to 10+ and are grouped into risk categories (low, moderate, high, very high) designed to help you easily and quickly identify your level of risk. Check out my blog for more details on the AQHI and what at risk folks can do. Actions you can take to help spare the air:

Travel tips:

-Leave your car at home; walk, cycle, carpool or take public transit.
-Teleconference instead of driving to meetings
-Limit car trips by doing all your errands at once
-Driving: no engine idling
-Keep vehicle well tuned; check tire pressure and drive at moderate speeds

Electricity saving tips:

-Set your AC temp a few degrees higher (health permitting)
-Turn off lights you aren’t using
Other pollution reduction tips
-Leave lawn mowing for another day
-Restrict the use of gas-powered equipment
-Delay using oil-based paints, solvents, & cleaners

Kung may tinanim, may aanihin; health starts at home. Alagaan ninyo ang katawan at kalusugan ninyo! Take care, and mind your health!
About Dr. Denise Koh

Dr. Denise Koh is Manitoba’s Chief Occupational Medical Officer and a Medical Officer of Health in Environmental Health and Emergency Preparedness. She is a Public Health specialist with additional training and experience in Family Medicine and Occupational Medicine. Follow her writing at: