Though there is widespread consensus that wildfire smoke has become an annual health issue for thousands of high-risk British Columbians, the provincial government is rejecting calls for individualized air quality measures and defending its one-size-fits-all approach.
CTV News Vancouver has spoken with several people with disabilities and the BC Lung Association, who all agree that the long-term issue of poor air quality during annual wildfire smoke should prompt the province to consider air purifiers an essential health device for those with relevant health conditions.
“I would not be surprised to see more people with underlying conditions going to emergency rooms,” said Dr. Menn Biagtan of the BC Lung Association, noting that the thousands of British Columbians who’ve had COVID-19 are now included in that category.
“I think one of the lessons we’re going to learn from this wildfire season is that air purifiers (should be) available for those who really need it or cannot afford it. I would be in agreement with that, and that should be included in the plan.”
Disability researcher and policy analyst Gabrielle Peters raised the issue with the province last year, penning a letter to several ministries and urging them to consider an extension to the BC Medical program.
“Disabled people are disproportionately likely to live below the poverty line and already facing extraordinary costs because of COVID-19,” she wrote last fall. “It is simply not possible to purchase air purifiers at this income level.”
The Ministry of Health rejected the idea of providing air purifiers to individuals in its response to Peters, saying it was too complex and expensive to do so and that the government was focussed on community centres and shopping malls as centres where anyone could find relief during periods of poor air quality. The ministry reiterated this position when CTV News asked about the issue on Wednesday.
“Due to these unique individual considerations when purchasing a portable air purifier, the provincial government does not provide portable air purifiers to the public,” wrote ministry staffer, who said no interviews were possible on the issue.
“BC Housing has an Extreme Heat and Wildfire Smoke Response Protocol for social housing buildings managed by BC Housing, including the creation of cooling rooms, regular checks on tenants and providing tenants with information about how to stay cool and protect themselves from smoke.”
PEOPLE WITH DISABILITIES AND COMPLEX HEALTH ISSUES SPEAK UP
While the smoke from wildfires may be an unpleasant annoyance for many people, for others, the weeks of fine particulate matter in the air can have serious health consequences.
“I get migraines and respiratory distress that triggers heart problems for me,” said Q, a disabled person in Chilliwack with a connective tissue disorder and COPD, among other complex health issues, which are aggravated by wildfire smoke.
“I am likely to faint if I do go outside; I have been hospitalized with wildfire smoke exposure.”
For those living in the Okanagan, the impacts have been even more intense and long-running.
“I know so many disabled people who, like me, are reluctant to seek medical care unless it’s a crisis since we spend so much time and energy navigating the system,” wrote Kelowna resident Shaunna Muckersie, who has permanent lung damage after mistaking a serious cough in 2018 as wildfire-smoke-related, when she actually had a lung abscess and double pneumonia.
“I am very lucky in my living situation in that I have been able to acquire an air purifier to run in my bedroom,” added Muckersie. “I genuinely don’t know what I would do otherwise. The mall and library are not safe for me now because of COVID, and as my disability has gradually worsened, I have had difficulty driving at times.”
PREPARING FOR WILDFIRE SMOKE IN ADVANCE
The BC Lung Association includes wildfire smoke prominently in its “State of the Air” report, urging British Columbians to start preparing for issues before the smoke sets in. https://bc.lung.ca/wildfire-smoke-and-health
“Exposure to wildfire smoke is associated with a range of acute effects, particularly for those with respiratory diseases,” note the report’s authors. “Evidence of longer-term health effects is also starting to emerge.”
Biagtan reiterated the advice to stock up on medications, have a “clean air room” in each home and make sure that anyone investing in an air purifier gets the right size for the space they want to use it in. She also advocated using the DIY option the B.C. Centre for Disease Control is recommending for those in a budget. It costs just $60 in materials.
“lf you’re planning to go out, look up the Air Quality Health Index,” she added. “If it’s high, stay indoors and seek clean air shelters. If your symptoms are worsening, consult your doctor or go to the emergency room.”
AN ECONOMIC AND HUMANITARIAN CASE FOR AIR QUALITY SUPPORTS
Peters would like to see wheelchair-accessible hotel rooms reserved for Interior Health residents to be able to escape the intense smoke near their homes, pointing out that unless the flames from a wildfire threaten someone’s home, they can be living in a fire zone for weeks with horrendous air quality and little escape if they don’t have the money or social connections to stay elsewhere.
She added that without access to air purifiers, high-risk people with compromised immune systems, cardiac conditions, various lung issues and physical disabilities can take up critical acute care resources.
“Research has shown emergency room visits and hospitalizations go up when there is wildfire smoke in the air,” wrote Peters. “We also know that (fine particulate matter) can cause both immediate acute symptoms and long term health effects.”
And while the argument that supplying air purifiers is more economical than a hospital stay doesn’t appear to be part of the government’s calculus, Q doesn’t think the government is taking into account the people who feel invisible in their health struggles, which are amplified each summer.
“The government has to rethink messaging and how we’re involved with these decisions,” Q said. “We really do get left on the sidelines. The greatest effects (from wildfire smoke) are against the people who are not cared for and not remembered by most of society.”