Worsening wildfire smoke causes sensory overload

A democratic citizen science revolution looms on our hazy horizon

by Bruce Mason

Our so-called leaders are announcing a “new normal” as if we’ve suddenly arrived on a plateau we have to “get used to” living on. That’s as nonsensical as the notion that wildfire smoke choking the planet is a “wake-up call.” We’ve slept through that, hitting the snooze buttons for decades, wilfully ignoring obvious red flag weather extremes, including massive fire tornadoes created by increasingly intense and ubiquitous toxic haze.

As our world transforms into a “hot house” and “sixth mass extinction,” knowledge of the unprecedented global wildfire smoke phenomena is like a drop in our endangered oceans. Even our warning alarms, including emergency air alerts, are woefully inadequate, even deceptively faulty.

We’re well aware, or should be, that British Columbians have been breathing some of the worst air in the world. The most common attempt to quantify it is the equivalent of smoking between 7 and a full pack of cigarettes a day.

For a quarter century, Dr. Michael Mehta has been in the thick of what he refers to as a “continuous, ongoing battle against pollution.” It would be wise to read his warning label for what, without any choice, we’re all breathing:

“Wood smoke is 12x more carcinogenic than cigarette smoke, contains 200+ toxic chemicals and releases radionuclides and many heavy metals. People don’t realize that metals, naturally occurring radioactive materials, including polonium and lead and other chemicals, get picked up by plants from soil, air and water and stored in plants. When burned, they are released and also undergo significant transformations during combustion to form dioxins, PAHs (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons), benzene.”

Among many other things, Mehta is a professor (geography and environmental studies with a joint appointment in sociology and anthropology) at Thompson Rivers University and founding director of the international Doctors and Scientists Against Wood-smoke Pollution.

He’s installed monitors – 30 in Kamloops, eight on Gabriola Island – which are part of a new, low-cost technological “swarm” of thousands more around the world, making up the PurpleAir network, to provide more detailed air quality data. He’s sharing life-saving information with a rapidly growing number of eternally grateful people. (See purpleair.com/map)

Mehta reports, “Over the past couple of years, there’s been a ‘mostly’ quiet revolution in air quality monitoring, democratizing it at the community level, often leading to new and sometimes difficult insights.”

Using a new generation of laser particle counters to provide measurement, these sensors are easily installed, requiring only a power outlet and WiFi to report in real time to the PurpleAir Map. “When high smoke events occur, people need timely information,” says Mehta. “Hence my emphasis on real-time data and distributed networks. Additionally, not everyone is equally at risk or affected. Averaged government communication is inadequate and somewhat evasive, to say the least.”

Using multiple independent sensors in a region determines how air quality varies by elevation, proximity to a pollution source, and other factors.

Mehta advises, “Longer periods of pollution at high levels are highly problematic, but spikes of pollution create their own problems. Air pollution has cumulative effects and some may find this summer is worse because of what they were exposed to last summer.”

In 2017, in Kamloops, for example, there was a longer duration of continuous wildfire smoke. This summer, our second consecutive state of emergency, has registered dramatically higher 24-hour averages of PM2.5 (atmospheric particulate matter with a diameter of less than 2.5 micrometers, about three percent of a human hair and easily ingested from the air into lungs and bloodstreams). Meeting WHO standards for it would have the same results as eliminating all cases of lung and breast cancer.

Why not do that?

I recall former Socred cabinet minister, Phil Gaglardi, before the life-saving ban of beehive burners, a previous deadly ‘fact of life in BC’ making an all-too-typical comment: “That’s the smell of money.” Follow that smell, as fossil fools seek to justify the status quo and discredit Mehta and other fully aware and informed experts and climate activists.

Surely, by now, we know short-term profit is being valued over long-term sustainability and life itself. We see, smell and breathe wildfire smoke with our physical senses and we know it’s getting much worse by utilizing our sixth sense, intuition. But we won’t or can’t summon the collective common sense to stop the insanity.

We have all we need, including the solutions, but continue to swallow the lies of corrupt politicians and complicit media. Swallowing wildfire smoke may help more of us connect the dots and lies and to act in our existential crisis.

The truth, now being spoken to power, is coming in. Copious peer-reviewed research, along with ongoing comparisons to satellite images and official data, prove PurpleAir is bang on, again and again, as governments utilize broken, too-slow risk assessments, akin to setting smoke alarms on delay, activated after the fire has started.

“It’s scandalous, farcical, deliberately dishonest, criminal,” Mehta has noted at various times. “Beijing declares “red alert” days when levels hit 150. Real-time air pollution levels in Kamloops and other areas are too often in the 200 range. Even when government monitors (finally) show an hourly average of 166, the Air Quality Health Index is 6 (moderate), when their own formula indicates that it should be 10+ (very high).

“It’s an inconvenient truth when smoke problems catch them with their pants down, lagging in advising communities about the risks,” he adds. Officials admit risk depends on sensor location, but in Kamloops, for example, there’s only one government monitor, which typically cost tens of thousands of dollars to purchase, let alone maintain and monitor.

“I find it horrifying, and an example of systemic racism, that BC doesn’t have any air quality monitoring in the northwest part of the province, where many First Nation communities reside,” says Mehta, selecting just one of myriad examples of the deep doo-doo we are in and being led even deeper.

Justin Trudeau is being blinded by smoke as he teeters on his insane, reckless and netless tightrope attempt to balance unlimited economic growth and resource extraction with catastrophic climate implosion.

John Hogan babbles nonsensically about a “new normal” while chasing and flogging LNG, which plays a role in ever-increasing wildfires.

“All part of a systematic campaign to downplay the risk of forest fires and other sources of wood smoke, during our current era we could call the Pyrocene,” Mehta warns.

Like the majority of us, his trust in government has hit rock bottom. But he envisions sensor networks to avoid pollution daily, hourly.

In the meantime, since government won’t act, the least it could do is advise us on what masks to wear (which are N95, by the way) and maybe even distribute some to the poor and most vulnerable among us.

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Bruce Mason is a Vancouver and Gabriola-Island based five-string banjo player, gardener, freelance writer and author of Our Clinic

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