Gratitude makes the journey better. Kindness, too.

Tag: clean air

We Are All Guardians Of Our Breathing Space

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 It’s an eye-opener for sure, along with air monitors present around town ( 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.

Giving Thanks With More Than Words

Originally published as a column on CFJC Today Kamloops and Armchair Mayor News on Monday, October 9, 2017. 

One of the simplest and profound joys of every day is stepping outside in early morning to hike with my dog. I will call it overwhelming gratefulness because that is the best way to describe how perfect a dusty trail that separates meadows of dry, yellow grasses, climbs into a sky so blue it defies the very definition of the colour blue itself. It makes gratefulness for the smallest things even more of a daily concept I should heed before I do anything else.

During the times the park and all city parks for that matter were closed due to the increased fire danger, I missed heading out on the trails more than I expected I will. More than not being able to take the dog out to the closest-to-us off-leash area, was the loss of blue skies and clean air and the reality of having to wake up to another day of inhaling deleterious particles small enough to wreak havoc in the body, short- and long-term.

I remember the first day of smoky air when all I could think of was ‘this is a lot of campfire smoke’. It felt silly that my brain would attempt to reduce the gravity of the situation by bringing up an association to what is, for the most part, a fun and sweetly sentimental detail of life.

After a few days though, and then many weeks of milky-white air, my brain made the appropriate switch to match the reality of what was actually happening. Bad air meant a lot of health trouble and that was something that made me even more grateful for every day in between that came with clear skies. Like they say, you don’t know how good you have it until it’s gone. It was like that, and not just for me. I met and chatted with many people who had a whole lot of appreciation for clean air and were missing it a lot.

Then, though the fires were still not fully extinguished, smoke went away and summer came back with warmth and lovely sky, and everyone felt alive and happy again. The wildfire smoke of 2017 was quickly becoming a bad memory at best. The air turned chilly and crisp a couple of weeks later, and though summer had been shortened, I found myself looking forward to fall and its beautiful colours, and to winter with all its magic.

On a particularly lovely though crisp night while wrapped in a warm wool blanket and sipping a cup of tea on the porch with my husband, there came a smell that made me cringe. Smoke! Someone in the neighbourhood had lit a fire in their fireplace, and the fresh air became tainted with the smell and the particles wood smoke brings about. I was surprised to realize how much I disliked it after the summer we had.  The same smell returned the nights after. A fixture of the cold season, though unnecessary and unhealthy.

During our Thursday morning hike, I noticed a column of thick grey smoke rising fast from somewhere in the downtown area. An eastward-draping cloud was slowly forming while firetruck sirens blared loudly, piercing the sunny morning. A few minutes later, they were replaced by the usual buzz and the column of smoke disappeared; so did the smell. The only thing persisting long after the commotion ended, was the cloud of smoke that had formed earlier. It was there still when I headed back home, reinforcing, quietly, yet in a most powerful way, that smoky air is not quickly moved out of the way where we live. My thoughts went back to the nights of fireplace smoke, which though not visible, is equally bad, and the thick summer smoke, which gave a new meaning to air pollution. My only conclusion was that it is too easy to forget how painful the lack of clean air was during those long smoky weeks.

I was reminded that we cannot afford to take clean air for granted. We have come to acquire enough knowledge of what pollution brings about, health-wise, and most of us agree that nothing comes close to the simple yet amazing gift of taking a breath of fresh air on any given day. Much of the particulate matter that wood smoke contains is small enough to penetrate cells and create a whole range of health problems, from greatly increasing cancer and stroke risk, to aggravating asthma and other chronic respiratory conditions, to affecting unborn babies and the developing brains of growing children.

There is so much at risk when the air we breathe is polluted. Granted, sometimes there is not much we can do to protect ourselves other than stay inside and run air purifiers during the times when wildfires are raging. But once the air gets clean, we must find better ways when we have a choice such as lighting a woodfire when cleaner ways to find cozy comfort are available. That applies to the other cold weather pesky thing, which is making its way back with the season: idling our cars for a long time before driving away, or to keep warm in the parking lot.

We have much to show our thankfulness for, more so when throwing even a furtive gaze over the many sad news stories from around the world. From the simplest things to the big ones, from the most obvious ones to the ones not immediately visible or easily forgettable, to have a say in the quality of the air we breathe, or the water we drink and or the food we eat, that is a big reason to be grateful for when we have it.

For now we do, and for that I am grateful. As I am for today’s blue sky and its dollopy clouds, for the rain last night and the fresh air it brought about, and for all the things I realize I have as soon as I open my eyes, starting with the wonderful world we live in, my family, the many wonderful people I have met along the journey, the freedom to express my thoughts and you, the readers.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Magic Is Better Under Clear Skies And In Clean Air

Originally published as a column in CFJC Today Kamloops and Armchair Mayor News on July 14, 2017. 

It happened that we could not easily evade on my husband’s three days off work as most of the clean air destinations were booked. Plus the sky around here got clear on Friday, so we decided to stay and hope for the best.

On Friday night we drove to Greenstone Mountain, away from the still smoky city. We had dreams of sleeping under the sky where our little guy could breathe freely. It turned clearer the higher we got, but the wind picked up as well, blowing grass pollen, dust and everything else in swirls that were not kind to my youngest’s immune system. He braved it for a couple of hours though, during which we ate watermelon, listened to harmonica tunes, chatted, and laughed. The air was windy-dusty but there was no smoke.

It got dark and stars glittered high and jolly. Then the moon rose, a gigantic bright orange slice we could spot through tall pines swaying in the wind. We lay in the grass on our sleeping bags and watched the stars. There were shooting stars, many of them, some so bright they left long-lasting streaks on the dark sky.

We made wishes, we told stories and we snuggled close: us four, the dog, a whole lotta starry sky and the magic that swallowed us all. Beauty that humbles and an unmatched depth of gratefulness: for seeing the stars that we missed so much on so many smoky nights, and for strands of time we managed to separate from the everyday rush and braid with all those stories and harmonica tunes. The stuff that will hang around our hearts forever.

There is so much to see and do here. From wherever you are in Kamloops, you’re but minutes away from a place where magic grows in thick bunches or hangs from a sky seeded with countless stars on a clear night. There is but one caveat: you have to be able to see it all. And you have to be able to be out there without the risk of suffocating like my little guy does on smoky days.

I have no respiratory issues. On a bad smoky day, I stay mostly inside. If I venture outside for a bit, I get the odd shortness of breath which is unsettling. My youngest on the other hand, and many other people with respiratory issues, feels that heaviness all the time, less so when he is in the controlled environment of his room with the air purifier running constantly, but that’s no life.

Truth is, whether you have respiratory issues or not, clean air is a must. It helps us live longer and it keeps us outside, where we feel better, we are less stressed, and healthier. It’s something we’ve been taking for granted or not thought about much, until we have been confronted with the harsh reality of dense air pollution.

Which brings me straight to the latest on the issue of the Ajax mine. For the most part, summer has become an illusion in our beautiful city due to the wildfires. Adding a heap of exhaust and dust to the mix will only worsen the air quality. Many of you reading this would ask, and rightfully so, if ‘worsen’ is the right word. After all, at its worst so far, the readings were at a mind numbing 49 (on a 1 to 10 scale.) Could it get any worse? I don’t want to know the answer; not if we can have a say in it.

Upon reading the conclusions of the BC Environmental Assessment Office and the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency regarding the Ajax mine, I shook my head and wondered how anyone could write those things with a straight face. No environmental agency, office, or employee can possibly say that Kamloops will not be affected by the mine.

We can discuss the degree of harm, as we have for years now, we can debate on percentages of mitigation of the ill effects, but we cannot go back to the ‘no significant environmental impact’.

We cannot live in a polluted world. The immediate and long-term effects of pollution are not to be taken lightly. A threat that is not visible is misleading, but its consequences are real, and often deadly.

That everything is a compromise in life is true. But no one should barter with people’s health. As for the assessors, I am ready to say that perhaps spending the last month in Kamloops while writing the conclusions of their study would have given them an accurate picture of what the place is like on a bad summer day without a mine in place yet.

A mine that will affect an entire community for a long time cannot be. We will be left staring at a handful of money wondering what happened to the life we were supposed to buy with it. Let’s not find ourselves there. There is no way back to where we can see a better future for our generation and the ones coming after once we get past the signing of approval papers. The mine shareholders and CEOs that will profit from the mine revenues (not high enough) will not be living here anyway. Disconnection from the consequences of one’s actions is one way of going through life, but a dishonourable one if I may say so.

There should be no ‘us vs. them’ either. A joined effort to find solutions for jobs needed in the community while aiming for a high standard of living, might just get us out of this years-long debate.

I am biased of course, but I simply cannot forgo the look in my son’s eyes as he is struggling for his next breath. That’s where argumentation stops and you start reconsidering the way you look at life and all its wondrous offerings. Nothing matters if you cannot breathe, not even magic.

The Bond We Cannot Let Go Of

Originally published as a column in NewsKamloops on January 30, 2016. 

Day with boysThe sky was painted in yellow light and beautiful white and blue clouds as the sun was setting in Kamloops. No sign of new snow, just the old hardened dirty banks by the sides of the road, some already transformed into dirty rivulets by the day’s warm air.

Just minutes ago we had left behind at Stake Lake a blizzard so thick and fast it felt unreal. Between getting out of our boots after a day of skiing and warming up next to the woodstove, we were in winter wonderland. ‘That came so sudden,’ both boys said as they ran outside on the cabin porch to look at the white curtain draping ever so fast over the surrounding trails and lake.

We had opted to play some today. After a shorter than usual day of school we took off into the hills, prompted by the morning warm breeze that had the awnings drum a premature spring dripping song.

The trails of hard snow with their surface melted by the midday sun made for some challenging terrain for young kids unaccustomed yet to all the skiing tricks, but it sure compensated in opportunities to bring our school talks with us in the middle of the woods.

Icy tracks on slopes that make you slide backwards again and again offer a wealth of physics observations, aside from the terrible annoyance of finding yourself subject to forces opposing your actual will.

So much to learn from as we followed trails, green and blue, and had clomps of falling snow missing us by mere seconds. The more ‘why’s sprout out of an outing, the clearer the message that if we allow our children to get separated from the great outdoors, a whole lot of learning disappears. For us too.

We all have much to lose if that happens.

We need to see trees to remember why we have to have many of them, countless, and we need to see forests in order to protect them from excessive and irrational logging.

We need to breathe fresh air and see the blue sky in order to be in unison as a community asking that the project that would bring a mine too close to Kamloops be reconsidered. Or that more areas are made available for walking and biking, which will slow us down enough to realize the preciousness of clean air and the beauty of a place where clean air matters.

We need to head out with our children to see the magic of the endless spaces our province is blessed with. Every season has its magic, but winter holds a special place in the hierarchy of wonders as it provides us with stories otherwise invisible: tracks of all sizes left by animals, big and small. It makes visible a world that we are easily forgetting in the rush of everyday life.

It is easy to forget that it is all shared land, easy to take for granted all that the invisible others make happen, easy to forget that we are not the tip of this wonderful world, but part of it, with a duty to try our hardest to keep it in balance.

The delicate and at the same time sturdy features of nature are available to us in Kamloops just steps away from home, wherever home happens to be. On any given day as you go for a walk, stop and take a look around. The vast spaces we have so much of are but an open-end invite to take yourself and your family out there and see the secrets nature so willingly shares if only we make time for it.

The icy slopes near Stake Lake were reason for intense frustration in our little guy at times, but then again, life is like that. If you’re out there, you learn that too.

Ups and downs, bumps and bruises, hope and laughter, frustrations bunched up like a ribbon that wraps around your mood too tight, there is nothing like taking a day off and finding yourself far from your everyday life and staring at shreds of clouds careening over tree tops as if to taunt you… Slow and fast redefined, time as you know it disappearing, and woods silent enough to bring the worries inside your heart down to a whisper. It matters to know that feeling.

Our sacred bond with nature is not one we can afford to let go of. There is simply no replacement. No app for that either, there’ll never be one. We owe this big secret to our children, sooner than later, because that’s what’s going to keep their world alive.

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