Keep calm and don’t wear a mask: how to stay safe in smoky air

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After more than a month of aggressive wildfire activity in B.C.’s Interior, smoke is starting to permeate the air across the province, prompting air quality warnings as far away as the Lower Mainland.

The hazy air is causing some dramatic, fiery red sunsets, but it’s also causing concern for those with heart and lung conditions, as well as the elderly and parents of very young children.

Environment Canada has issued air quality advisories for areas all over the province, many of which are in high risk conditions on its Air Quality Health Index. The hot, smoky conditions are expected to persist for several days.

While the smoke shouldn’t be of immediate concern unless you have a pre-existing condition, here are some tips from experts to avoid problems in smoky air.

NASA Aug 1 satellite smoke

Satellite imagery from NASA shows thick smoke from B.C. wildfires gathering in the Fraser Valley on August 1. (NASA )

Reduce or avoid strenuous activity

The Air Quality Health Index measures air quality on a scale from one to 10, with anything above seven being considered high risk. Levels above 10 are sometimes recorded in extreme cases — Kamloops recorded a staggering 49 on Thursday.

Dr. Chris Carlsten, director of the Air Pollution Exposure Laboratory at the University of British Columbia, said high Air Quality Health Index levels usually aren’t of immediate concern to the general public — just those with existing respiratory or cardiovascular conditions, as well as the elderly and the very young.

Still, he advises staying inside and avoiding strenuous physical activity.

“It’s unlikely to be acutely dangerous for those who are healthy, but nonetheless it can be irritating,” Carlsten said.

“And therefore decreasing, say, the intensity of a run or a bike ride, or even maybe just skipping those activities for today and possibly tomorrow is probably smart just because of the irritating quality of these higher levels of pollution.”

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The B.C. Centre for Disease Control says only masks rated N-95 or above are suitable for filtering out wildfire smoke, and only if properly fitted. (Alfredo Estrella/AFP/Getty Images)

Leave the mask at home

Many may be tempted to wear surgical masks while outside to avoid breathing in smoke particulates, but Carlsten said wearing an inadequate mask can actually be counterproductive.

“They don’t really have a tight fit, and they increase the resistance to breathing, so you actually have to breath harder to get the air in because of, effectively, that barrier,” Carlsten said.

“By doing that, you’ll breathe deeper and get things in deeper.”

The B.C. Centre for Disease Control says masks rated as N-95 — meaning they block at least 95 per cent of very small test particles — can reduce inhaled fine particulate matter up to ten times, but only if properly fitted. It only recommends mask use for workers who will be outside in smoky conditions for long periods of time.

Seek large air-conditioned buildings

Dr. Mark Lysyshyn, Vancouver Coastal Health medical health officer, said smoke particles are so tiny that they can enter houses.

Lysyshyn recommends finding a large public building with a commercial-grade air filtration system, such as a mall or a movie theatre, that can effectively filter out the smoke.

He said in-home air purifiers can be an option, but only if they’re designed adequately for the space they’re in.

“It has to be powerful enough to clean the air in a space that big, and you have to take care of them as well, so changing the filters and making sure they’re optimized, but they can work,” Lysyshyn said.

dirty air filter

The BCAA recommends checking your engine and cabin air filters for ash buildup if you’ve been driving in or around any active wildfire zones. (Donar Reiskoffer/Wikimedia Commons)

Check your car’s air filters

Dave Weloy, senior manager of fleet operations with the B.C. Automotive Association (BCAA), recommends keeping the windows rolled up and using your vehicle’s recirculated air option when driving in smoky conditions.

Your vehicle’s air filtration system can also take a beating if you’ve done a lot of driving in or around an active wildfire zone, as falling ash can clog both the engine and cabin air filters.

Weloy advised those who have been driving in such conditions this month to check their air filters themselves, or have them checked in a shop.

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Keep calm and don’t wear a mask: how to stay safe in smoky air

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