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Why healthy individuals should heed air quality warnings

Sunset over Vancouver in the haze. Courtesy Postmedia Network

The air quality around Metro Vancouver is worse than some of the world’s most polluted cities, including Los Angeles and Beijing, as smoke from Interior wildfires continues to fill the skies. More than 550 wildfires are actively burning around the province, prompting the BC government to declare a state of emergency today.

An air quality advisory remains in effect for the Lower Mainland and Fraser Valley. The main concern is fine particulate matter, also known as PM2.5. These are airborne solid or liquid droplets with a diameter of 2.5 micrometres (µm) or less. PM2.5 can easily penetrate indoors because of its small size.

The air quality in Metro Vancouver is not expected to improve until later this week.

Dr. Don Sin, respirologist at St. Paul’s and director of the Centre for Heart Lung Innovation, answered six questions about the air quality advisory.

Dr. Don Sin, Centre for Heart Lung Innovation Director

  1. Who should be most concerned about the poor air quality?
    DS: Infants, elderly and those with underlying heart or lung conditions should be most concerned.
  2. What precautions do they need to take?
    DS: Stay indoors. If they need to go outdoors, do so only for a short period of time.
  3. Do healthy individuals need to take extra precautions when the air quality is this poor?
    DS: Yes, because even “healthy” individuals may have underlying heart and lung problems that they are not aware of.
  4. Why is fine particulate matter such a concern?DS: Because these particles can penetrate deep into the lungs and cause inflammation. Inflammation causes bronchial tubes to go into spasm (leading to cough, phlegm and shortness of breath) and if inflammation gets into the blood, this can cause angina and heart attacks for susceptible people.
  5. Are you seeing more patients in respiratory distress because of the poor air quality?
    DS: Yes, there has been a clear increase in respiratory problems in our clinic at St. Paul’s Hospital but, by and large, people are doing the right thing by staying indoors.
  6. What about masks? Are they helpful?
    DS: Surgical masks are useless and should not be worn for this purpose. They cannot filter out the small particles. Don’t waste money on them.
    (Watch an interview Dr. Sin did last year on this topic with Global BC.)

For up to date air quality information in the Metro Vancouver area, check out the interactive AirMap.

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