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Smoky skies shrouding Metro Vancouver have placed Vancouver among the three cities with the worst air quality in the world.
Vancouverites waking up to a red sunrise might not be surprised to learn that Vancouver is the third most polluted city on Wednesday, with an air-quality index of 175, higher than typically more polluted megacities like Beijing or Mexico City, according to the global air quality monitoring site IQAir
The rating is considered “unhealthy,” according to the ranking.
Only Lahore, Pakistan, and Chengdu, China, have worse air quality. Seattle, which is also dealing with nearby wildfires, is fourth, while Portland, Ore., is seventh.
The smoky, hazy conditions in the Lower Mainland are due to wildfires burning southeast of Chilliwack, near Hope, Harrison Lake and in Washington state, causing high concentrations of fine particulate matter, or PM2.5, throughout the region.
“At this point in the year, it’s unprecedented to see influences from wildfire smoke the way we have been seeing it in the last week or two,” said Donna Haga, senior air quality meteorologist with the B.C. Environment Ministry.
Haga recalls smoke from California wildfires drifting north to B.C. as late as September in 2020, but “we’re halfway through October and we’re still experiencing smoke impact in Metro Vancouver, Vancouver Island, and the southern and central Interior.”
The poor air quality forced the cancellation of a scheduled B.C. Lions’ practice on Wednesday. Instead, the club will hold an indoors walk-through practice at its facility in Surrey.
Smoky conditions also prompted the B.C. Lung Foundation to issue a warning Wednesday about the health impacts of smoke exposure.
“We experienced never-before-seen levels of particulate matter in the air yesterday, which has an extremely damaging effect on everyone’s lungs — especially those living with lung disease,” said president and CEO Christopher Lam. “Today’s air quality is still poor, and we want residents to know the seriousness of it.”
Fine particulate matter is airborne solids or liquid droplets with a diameter of 2.5 micrometres or less. Because of their small size, PM2.5 can easily penetrate indoors.
“Smoke concentrations may vary widely across the region with changes in wind, temperature and wildfire behaviour,” said an air quality statement from Environment Canada. The air quality is worse in eastern parts of the Fraser Valley that are closer to the wildfires compared with western parts of Metro.
As of Wednesday morning, Metro’s air quality health index has a 10-plus, or very high-risk rating, for the Fraser Valley and southeast Metro, which includes Surrey and Langley.
Southwest Metro, including Richmond and Delta, is also at 10.
Northwest and northeast Metro, which includes Vancouver, New Westminster, Burnaby, Pitt Meadows, Coquitlam and Maple Ridge, has a moderate risk rating of six. But air quality is expected to deteriorate later in the day Wednesday and rise to eight, considered high risk.
An air-quality advisory issued by Metro last week remains in place.
On Tuesday, the Environment Ministry issued a widespread smoky skies bulletin for southern and central B.C., and the B.C. North Peace River region.
Experts recommend reducing or postponing outdoor physical activity while PM2.5 concentrations are high, especially for those with underlying health conditions such as heart disease, asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) or those with respiratory conditions such as COVID-19 who may be more affected by smoke exposure.
Seniors, pregnant women, infants and children, people who work outdoors, or people who are dealing with homelessness and living outdoors, are also more vulnerable.
People should monitor any symptoms, which commonly include mild irritation and discomfort. Wildfire smoke exposure can also cause dry cough, sore throat or difficulty breathing, similar to symptoms of respiratory infections.
If symptoms such as chest discomfort, shortness of breath, coughing or wheezing occur, people should seek medical care, and in the case of emergency, call 911.
The Environment Ministry provides these tips to reduce exposure to smoke:
• When indoors, smoke levels may be lower, but will still be elevated, so be aware of your symptoms.
• Running a HEPA air purifier can improve the air quality in the room that it’s located.
• If you have a forced air heating/cooling system, it may help to change the filter and set the fan to run continuously.
• In a car, keep the windows up and the ventilation set to recirculate.
The poor air quality is expected to linger until late Thursday into Friday, when rain finally returns to the region.
Haga said it’s difficult to predict smoke impacts beyond 24 to 48 hours.
“We are not expecting things to change in the next day or two, but we’re cautiously optimistic looking at improvements by the weekend as some unsettled weather comes through,” she said.
Vancouver weather: Smoky with poor air quality
Smoky skies: Vancouver’s air quality ranked third worst in the world
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