Originally published as a column on CFJC Today Kamloops and Armchair Mayor News on November 13, 2017.
If you hike to the top of Peterson Creek Park on any given day, more so on a cold one, you’ll see a blanket of yellowish, dirty air draped over the valley.
This is not new or unexpected. The surface inversion well-known to these parts increases the effects of air pollution. Whatever is released into that cold air trapped close to the surface, be it vehicle exhaust, mill emissions, or wood smoke, it all stagnates and makes our breathing air a lot worse than it should be.
There is no clear answer as to what is in the yellow plume. Winter smog is a terrible beast made worse by inversion phenomena, but knowing what we breathe in would be good. You can’t fix something if you don’t know where to start or how complex the issue.
It would be nice to know how much each polluting source adds to that yellowish layer. There is no heads-up information about mill emissions or slash pile burning. That affects some people more than others. It is unsettling to be exposed to air pollution by various industries in or around town, and not know when that will happen. Of course, when it does, people notice, but there is something to be said about habituation. Except that in case of our breathing air, it is not in our benefit at all to accept it as is.
On top of notifications about mill emissions and slash burning, there should be information sessions on how air quality is made worse by the inversion and a low venting index. If psychologically it is easy to shrug off the memory of many socked-in days when a better day comes along, and the valley air looks clean, our bodies react differently, as the perilous effects on health are compounded.
Air pollution is a real enemy to human health, and an increasing body of scientific evidence points to it. Short- and long-term effects of air pollution are real and, for the latter, deadly in many cases. The reluctance to recognize them as such have to do, I am willing to say, with the invisible nature of this threat. Should dirty water pour out of out taps, few if any would want to drink it. The air we breathe should be no different. It is true that industrial pollution accounts for much of the bad air in town. But some of the dirty yellow plume is caused by residential activity, be it driving or wood burning.
City traffic has been increasing over the years and that means an increased volume of exhaust gases. Adding to that is the unnecessary idling. There is no need to idle cars for more than 30 seconds on a cold day. Nor is idling while stopping to chat, or while running into a store for some quick shopping, or to keep warm while waiting. Just more toxic gases.
As for wood smoke, whether from residential use or slash pile burning (an environmentally unsound and health-costly solution for all the logging leftovers,) it tends to linger for a long time, which is exactly why in areas where inversion is present wood burning should be reconsidered. A recent study by a team at McGill University concluded that wood smoke increases the risk of heart attack in people over 65 by 19 percent. Residential wood heat accounts for 15 percent of PM2.5 in British Columbia, likely higher in areas like Kamloops where inversion is present.
Wood smoke is a mix of approximately 200 compounds, including particulate matter of various sizes, powerful cancer-causing and mutagenic agents. When it comes to particulate matter, the smaller it is, the deeper in the cells of respiratory tract they get. Not exactly what we want to have in our immediate environment for months at a time. As always, children and unborn babies are at highest risk due to their developing bodies. As for the elderly and those who with chronic respiratory diseases, life becomes a few times more dangerous just by breathing, and the constant irritation of the respiratory tract makes them prone to longer and more debilitating seasonal infections.
Interior Health recommends that wood burning should be done on those days when the venting index is good, which is close to 100. On a regular ‘socked-in’ day, the said index is a mere 10, which is classified as poor. Venting indexes can be found at http://www.env.gov.bc.ca/epd/epdpa/venting/venting.html. It’s an eye-opener for sure, along with air monitors present around town (www.purpleair.com.) Tomorrow is forecasted to have a good venting index, by the way.
I know I am not the only one wondering about this. And I know that when there’s a will, a solution, or many, are found. We ought to find the will to reconsider the way we think about our air, and we ought to change our habits to help keep our air clean. At the same time, we ought to be able to get the industrial polluters to realize that pushing potentially harmful gases and particulate matter into our breathing space is no longer an option. Accountability is not a volatile concept.
Summers will be smokier, we are told. If some of that will be unavoidable, long-term exposure during other seasons can and should be avoided for all the right reasons. The most important one being that nothing matters if breathing is impacted.