Medical officer encourages more efforts to make Comox Valley air cleaner

North Island Medical Health Officer Dr. Charmaine and Earle Plain, air quality meteorologist, minister of environment made a presentation to Cumberland council about air pollution and how it affects your health. - Michael Briones / Echo Staff
North Island Medical Health Officer Dr. Charmaine and Earle Plain, air quality meteorologist, minister of environment made a presentation to Cumberland council about air pollution and how it affects your health.
— image credit: Michael Briones / Echo Staff

Air quality affects us all. That's the message Dr. Charmaine Enns told the Village of Cumberland council Monday night.

To an individual, the risk of air pollution may seem small but when it goes across the population, Enns said, the percentage actually becomes quite significant in terms of the number of people that are potentially going to have a negative effect from poor air quality.

The North Island Medical Health Officer explained that the major impacts from poor air quality are about chronic disease progression. Established effects of air pollution includes shorter life expectancy, heart and lung diseases.

"It's exposure over time and what that means, especially to heart and lung disease," said Enns, who pointed out that the most vulnerable in the population affected by air pollution are often infants, children, individuals aged 65 years and over and those with chronic underlying health conditions.

"That's already 40 per cent of our population that have higher risk from poor air quality," said Enns.

New research conducted by McGill and Health Canada has linked lung and heart problems to air pollution caused by biomass burning from woodstoves, which are commonly used in households here in the Comox Valley.

The study focused on smaller urban centres that included Courtenay/Comox, Prince George, and Kamloops. By comparing pollution data from the three cities, researchers found that rising concentrations of fine particulate matter or PM2.5 caused by wood burning were associated with increased hospitalization for myocardial infarction (heart attack).

The research indicated that risk of heart attacks among subjects of 65 years and older increased by 19 per cent when PM2.5s went up, especially during the winter months.

McGill professor Scott Weichenthal, the lead author of the study, will be presenting the results of "Biomass Burning as a Source of Ambient Fine Particulate Air Pollution and Hospital Admissions for Acute Myocardial Infarction," as they pertain to the Comox Valley at the air quality-focused elected officials' forum on April 4.

Enns said this is the first study they know off that looked at the impact of biomass burning on heart and lung disease. There is a need for more studies to be conducted, she pointed out.

"No study should stand on its own, There needs to be replication of the results," said Enns, who added it is, however, an interesting study and is relevant.

Enns advised that the goal that everyone should target is to reduce air pollution and "make the air as good as possible, instead of worrying about a specific number."

"The lower the levels of air pollution, the better the health of the whole population, especially when you look at heart and lung disease over the long term and the short term," said Enns.

Earle Plain, air quality meteorologist, minister of environment, described PM2.5 as super fine particles that can "easily pass our natural defences within our body and reach the deepest recesses of our lungs and cause health effects."

As well, particulate matter is generated mainly from combustion sources such as diesel, gasoline, oil or even toast.

An emissions inventory report commissioned by the Comox Valley Regional District identifies two major sources of PM2.5 in the region – space heating, which represents all forms of heating from residential to commercial, and the other is open burning, which represents forestry/burning, development burning that includes agriculture, as well as residential back yard burning.

"Those are both combustion source materials," said Plain. "Those two categories by itself make up 81 per cent of the PM2.5 emissions in the Comox Valley. So they are pretty significant."

Plain said if the region wants to change the PM.25 in the valley, these two categories need to be addressed and they include back yard burning and the use of woodstoves.

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