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Air Quality in a Climate Emergency

Wildfire Smoke Op-Ed from the Kelowna Climate Coalition

This past week the air quality severely deteriorated as the McDougall Creek fire exploded across the landscape. Firefighters, emergency services personnel, public servants and volunteers came together in a heroic effort to protect our communities both in the fire fight and evacuating residents to protect life, infrastructure, and property, for which we are forever thankful to them.

With people evacuated from the fire zones and air quality conditions rapidly deteriorating, exposure to the air became a greater public health hazard.

Hazardous, thick grey smoke filled the valley with ash falling from the sky. The AQI index went from Moderate, “Sensitive individuals should take precautions,” to Hazardous, “General public at high risk to experience strong irritations and adverse health effects that could trigger other illnesses.”

According to Health Canada, there is no safe level of exposure to fine particulates from wildfire smoke. Yet despite high-risk conditions, the communications to the public were inadequate. No official sounded the alarm about the associated health risks, nor steps people could take to protect themselves. As of Monday, the public were still advised to stay indoors and that exposure was a concern for only high risk groups. Little did they get informed that the indoor air quality in most buildings is suboptimal to protect their health.

Meanwhile, evacuees were in tents and trailers, homeless people remained on the street, people continued to recreate unprotected outside, and many were at their workplaces and community facilities all inadequately protected from exposure.

Those concerned turned to social media for advice. Many assumed their homes would protect their health. They didn’t know that weak building codes mean most homes infiltrate polluted air even with windows closed due to inadequate filters on their furnace and no building airtightness. They were not informed to purchase air purifiers, how to create their own, or to simply leave town to protect themselves and family.

There was no clear refuge for people to escape the smoke. While residents could go to City facilities, it was unclear which facilities had adequate indoor air quality. Smoke could be smelled at both Parkinson Recreation Center and H2O from people who thought they were protected by exercising indoors. This raises questions about how City facilities - including those recently built - have been constructed and are maintained to adapt to the climate crisis.

On August 21, Accelerate Okanagan, in the Okanagan Innovation Centre (construction completed in 2016), was closed to the public because of poor air quality within the building as the ventilation system was not able to address the levels of smoke. Teachers were being informed not to go back to work next week if the air quality does not improve due to poor indoor air quality in schools.

Many cities also have resilience hubs that include schools and city facilities to protect residents from extreme events. In Kelowna it appears there is no clear refuge.

Cities in the Okanagan had many opportunities to make our buildings healthier for us and resilient to climate events by adopting the highest level of Step Code ahead of provincial requirements, yet delayed phasing in even the lower levels, meaning even new homes are not providing the level of protection from smoke infiltration and resilience to extreme events that they could be.

We know from past events like 9/11, and the train derailment in Ohio, that often the real health impacts from smoke and poor air quality emerge years later. We are only just beginning to understand the health risks of wildfire smoke and continual exposure. A growing body of international research suggests that such exposure can produce cognitive deficits, post-traumatic stress and may even increase the risk of dementia, Alzheimer's and Parkinson's disease in addition to the impacts on lungs, hearts and blood.

Here we are, a region on the front lines of the climate crisis whose impacts are impossible to deny, directly impacting our health. We urgently need political and community leadership and more foresight, planning, and action to protect residents from hazardous smoke events and address the climate emergency. This starts with requiring the highest levels of the zero carbon Step Code in new buildings and retrofitting our existing homes and buildings to provide safe indoor air, protect us from ongoing climate events, and using heat pumps instead of burning methane gas in our homes.

The negligence to date in addressing the climate crisis is proving dangerous. There is still time to act to support our vulnerable residents and protect our beautiful community.

Kelowna Climate Coalition

August 23, 2023-for immediate release

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