It’s easy to disregard poor air quality as an issue that happens somewhere else. When we think of smog, we picture cities like Los Angeles, London, and Delhi. It’s more difficult to face the reality that air quality is a universal issue that demands attention whether you live in Saskatoon or Seoul.
This summer, it’s been difficult to ignore air pollution, as record wildfires have triggered air quality warnings from BC to Quebec. Canada has battled 5,407 wildfires this year thus far, significantly more than the 10-year average. Unfortunately, as wildfires are becoming more commonplace¹, this number is likely to grow. The number of air quality alerts we all receive will likely increase as a consequence.
How do wildfires affect air quality?
Wildfires produce a mixture of air pollutants that deteriorate air quality. The major air pollutant is fine particulate matter less than 2.5 microns in size, also known as PM2.5². These particles are about 30 times smaller than the diameter of a human hair! Their small size means that they have an uncanny ability to penetrate deep into our lungs and elsewhere in our body, including our brains³. Air pollution from wildfires can have significant negative health effects, including respiratory and cardiovascular diseases⁴. Particulate matter in wildfire smoke actually impacts respiratory health more adversely relative to that from other sources⁵.
Who’s at risk?
Wildfire smoke can have significant health implications for everyone. Those at greatest risk include⁴:
- Infants and children
- Pregnant women
- Individuals with underlying health conditions
What can you do right now to protect yourself from poor air quality caused by wildfires?
- Pay attention to local air quality statements. These are issued when air pollution levels become dangerously high and provide recommendations on how you can reduce your exposure.
- Familiarize yourself with Canada’s Air Quality Health Index. The Index is colour-coded to help you understand how polluted the air is.
- Use an indoor air purifier with a HEPA filter⁶ (or make your own)
- Reduce strenuous activities⁶ (heavier breathing = inhaling more smokey air)
- Keep windows and doors closed⁶
- Keep your AC or fan on ‘recirculating’⁶. This draws air through your furnace filter and removes some of the pollutants. Change filters regularly and frequently.
What is Sierra Club Canada doing about air pollution?
We’ve created a citizen science project called Breathe Easy to help local residents better understand the quality of air they breathe. The project is being piloted in Ottawa, Ontario and uses low-cost handheld air quality monitors to document outdoor air pollution levels (specifically PM2.5) throughout the city. The project is funded by the Ottawa Community Foundation and is carried out in cooperation with Ecology Ottawa.
What do we hope to accomplish?
- Increase public awareness and understanding of local air quality
- Help residents reduce their contribution and exposure to air pollution
- Supplement existing government-run air quality monitoring stations to provide a more holistic coverage of air quality throughout the city
- Galvanize public support for municipal changes
What can you do to reduce your contribution to air pollution?
The bad news is that climate change is likely to increase the frequency and severity of wildfires. Don’t think that’s the end of the story -- there are lots of things we can do! We know that PM2.5 comes from a range of sources. By curbing actions that contribute to air pollution, we can actually help mitigate climate change and all the nasty things that come with it (like wildfires).
You can enact positive change by modifying your daily habits, such as:
- Drive less
- When you do use your vehicle, consolidate your trips (saving you gas and money!)
- Don’t unnecessarily idle your vehicle
- Turn off your car when picking your kids up from school or a friend for dinner
- Swap out your traditional gas-powered appliances for electric or battery-operated versions
- lawnmowers, hedge trimmers, fireplaces are sneaky culprits behind air pollution and can actually be much more polluting than driving a car!
- Conserve energy
- Insulate your home better; turn off lights when not in use; swap out regular light bulbs for LEDs
A lot of these tips don’t just save your health, they also help your wallet.
What can we push for our cities to do?
At the collective level, our cities and towns can do more to reduce the sources of air pollution that currently exist. We can all encourage (or better, demand) that our governments make healthier air quality a priority. Some of these advancements include:
- Improving public transport and its accessibility
- Reducing vehicular traffic (especially in city centres)
- Creating better infrastructure to support active transport (biking, walking, rollerblading)
- Encouraging telecommuting
- Advertising air quality alerts in communal areas, where residents are more likely to see them
Written by Emma DeRoy, MSc
Emma has worked in the field of environmental science for the past several years, in which she holds a Master's degree. Most recently, she supported evaluation and evidence synthesis of climate finance initiatives at the Green Climate Fund.
¹Dimopoulou M, Giannikos I (2004) Towards an integrated framework for forest fire control. European Journal of Operational Research 152: 476–486.
²Reid JS, Koppmann R, Eck TF, Eleuterio DP (2005) A review of biomass burning emissions Part II: intensive physical properties of biomass burning particles. Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics 5: 799–825.
³Peeples L (2020) News Feature: How air pollution threatens brain health. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 117: 13856-13860.
⁴Liu JC, Pereira G, Uhl SA, Bravo MA, Bell ML (2015) A systematic review of the physical health impacts from non-occupational exposure to wildfire smoke. Environmental Research 136: 120–132.
⁵Aguilera, R, Corringham T, Gershunov A, Benmarhnia T (2021) Wildfire smoke impacts respiratory health more than fine particles from other sources: Observational evidence from Southern California. Nature Communications 12: 1493.
⁶Laumbach RJ (2019) Clearing the air on personal interventions to reduce exposure to wildfire smoke. Annals of the American Thoracic Society 16: 815-818.