When wildfire smoke settles over English Bay this summer, as experts predict it will, there’s not much Vancouver can do about it.
But the city shouldn’t be adding any more ingredients to the “toxic soup,” says Kitsilano resident Judith Maxie, who wants council to reschedule fireworks events if the air quality is poor.
“You don’t have to be a scientist to see that tossing all those fireworks into the soup isn’t a good thing,” she said Thursday. “This is something we can actually change.”
Maxie doesn’t want to ban fireworks altogether — “over the years we’ve loved attending them,” she said — but wants the city to hold events like the Honda Celebration of Light at a different time of year, or put a contingency plan in place in case it’s smoky during the annual Canada Day fireworks.
Dr. Christopher Carlsten said he considers fireworks pollution “a significant issue,” particularly for people who are sensitive to poor air quality. A number of case reports have shown an increase in asthma attacks and irritation in people with lung disease during fireworks events.
“There’s not a lot of good defences for them in a health sense,” said the Vancouver physician. “If we’re just talking about health, I’d say don’t do it.” But the University of B.C. professor and head of respiratory medicine admitted that argument doesn’t factor in the “cultural equation” or the enjoyment derived from the spectacle.
Carlsten, who holds the Canada research chair in occupational and environmental lung disease, said much of the research on fireworks pollution has been done in countries where festivals last for days and fine particulate pollution accumulates at ground level.
“It’s quite clear that fireworks do affect air quality, but in Canada the events do tend to be short,” he said.
University of B.C. public health professor Dr. Michael Brauer said Vancouver’s fireworks shows happen high above the ground, which can help the particulate dissipate sooner, especially if wind conditions are favourable.
“It’s a transient increase,” he said of the rise in fine particulate pollutants associated with fireworks. “For most people, it shouldn’t be a concern, but for those with asthma or heart and lung concerns, it would be best to minimize exposure.”
Metro Vancouver air quality advisor Geoff Doerksen said pollution from fireworks is “short-lived and dissipates quickly,” and most years it doesn’t reach the ground. Any localized impacts to air quality tend to return to normal levels within a few hours.
Doerksen advised people who are concerned to avoid viewing areas and close their windows if they live in the area.
In a statement, the City of Vancouver said it did not receive any complaints about air quality during last year’s fireworks events and “is not considering cancelling or rescheduling fireworks that occur on Canada Day or at the Celebration of Lights.”
The summers of 2017 and 2018 were the worst on record for smoky skies across B.C.
In Metro Vancouver, there were 22 days last July and August under air-quality advisories, three more than in the summer of 2017.
The last two summers have far exceeded the number of advisories issued in any other year since 1996, the first year for which data is available. Several years, including 2016, had zero air-quality advisories.
In 2015, a U.S. study published in Atmospheric Environment found that levels of fine particulate matter are elevated in urban areas by an average of 42 per cent during the 24-hour period starting with a fireworks event.
“That was a national average across 315 monitoring sites; it actually varies from place to place and year to year,” lead author Dian Seidel, a senior scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, told Postmedia at the time.
One monitoring station located near the site of a display registered a 370-per-cent increase in fine particles.
Meanwhile, a study led by researchers from the University of Montreal took recorded PM2.5 concentrations as much as 1,000 times normal on single readings within the smoke plume.
Readings from monitoring stations set up at “breathing level” near the ground showed PM2.5 concentrations about 50 times normal levels during the display. Elevated concentrations of fine particles were detected as far away as 14 kilometres, suggesting the particles remain in the atmosphere for “a long period of time,” probably days.
With Postmedia files
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