Category "Local Health"


Metro Vancouver to aim for zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050

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Vancouver city councillor Adriane Carr.

Gerry Kahrmann / PNG

Vancouver city councillor Adriane Carr wants Metro Vancouver to reach a goal of 100-per-cent net reduction in greenhouse gas emissions over the next three decades.

On the road to 100 per cent, Carr says the region should set an interim target of reducing GHGs by 45 per cent by 2030.

Carr will be asking the regional governing body to support the 100-per-cent goal so that Metro Vancouver is in alignment with a special international report on the climate crisis.

“Scientists say that’s exactly what’s needed,” Carr said Thursday. “The world’s leading scientists issued a report in the fall of 2018 that implored governments to act with urgency. The climate is changing faster than they earlier predicted.”

Cutting GHGs by 100 per cent in Metro Vancouver requires updating the Climate 2050 Strategic Framework, which calls for an 80-per-cent reduction.

On Friday, Carr is bringing her amendment to the regional Climate Action Committee of which she is chair.

If approved, it would go to the full Metro Vancouver board for a vote on July 23.

A 100-per-cent net decrease in GHGs would bring the region into alignment with the Special Report on Global Warming by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which provides the United Nations with a scientific analysis of climate change.

The panel’s report said if global warming is not kept to 1.5 degrees C, it could lead to more periods of drought, increased wildfires, and place entire ecosystems at risk.

To reach the 1.5-degree target, it would require “rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society,” the panel’s report stated.

Carr admits that becoming carbon-neutral requires systemic change in Metro Vancouver.

“The first step is reaching out to the public in the development of roadmaps to get to these kind of reductions,” she said. “I’m counting on the public and stakeholders to get us to where we’re aiming to keep global warming at a level that avoids catastrophe.”

Carr pointed out that the 100-per-cent net reduction in GHG emissions recognizes that not all fossil fuels will be eliminated by 2050. What it means is that any GHG emissions by then will be offset by methods such as sequestration, a form of long-term storage of carbon dioxide by reforestation and wetland restoration.

The 2030 target of 45 per cent is important, Carr said, because it’s an interim measure which allows public bodies to assess how they’re doing over time.

Vancouver set a goal in 2010 of a 33-per-cent drop in GHGs by 2020. Part of the reason why Vancouver is now only at seven per cent, she said, is because there were no interim targets.

Climate change has already had an affect on Metro Vancouver, the Climate Action Committee report said.

“As one example, the region has been impacted by smoke from unprecedented wildfire activity in western North America in three of the past four summers,” it said. “Expected future climate impacts include more wildfire smoke, an increase in rainfall intensity by 20-45 per cent by 2050 and 40-75 per cent by 2100, and at least one metre of sea level rise.”

The report goes to say that achieving carbon neutrality requires Metro Vancouver to not only reduce GHG emissions as much as possible, but also to commit to using “100 per cent renewable fossil fuel-free energy by 2050.”

Across the country, more than 250 local governments have declared climate emergencies.

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Illicit drug deaths down this year in B.C., says coroner

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Swimming advisories in effect at two Metro Vancouver beaches

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Sunset Beach in Vancouver is under a swimming advisory due to high E. coli counts.


Sunset Beach in Vancouver and Snug Cove on Bowen Island remain under swimming advisories after the water in those areas was found to have high E. coli counts.

A reading of 200 E. coli per 100 mL or higher can lead to an advisory that the water is not suitable for swimming.

Measuring the amount of E. coli bacteria in the water determines fecal contamination. Swimming in contaminated water can increase the risk of developing illnesses such as abdominal cramps, bloody diarrhea and vomiting three or four days after exposure.

The information is used by either of the two health authorities in the region — Vancouver Coastal Health or Fraser Health Authority — to determine whether there should be a swimming advisory.

Metro Vancouver also monitors False Creek, where the guideline for E. coli is 1,000 per 100 mL, five times higher than at nearby Sunset Beach. The level is higher in False Creek because it is not considered a swimming area where people are likely to come in contact with the water.

Matt Kieltyka, a spokesperson at Vancouver Coastal Health, said False Creek’s location next to Sunset Beach has an effect on water quality.

“False Creek, which is not a designated swimming area, does have higher levels of E. coli, and Sunset Beach could be affected by the tidal movement of water,” he said in an email. “It’s fair to say that can be one of the factors that’s contributing to the elevated levels at Sunset Beach.”

Farida Bishay, superintendent of environmental monitoring for Metro Vancouver, said samples are collected daily between May and September from 113 sites at 41 locations and measured at Metro’s Microbiology Laboratory.

At Sunset Beach that translates into one sample every week and two samples every third week.

“The analysis takes 24 hours, so we want to be able to have results on Friday to report to our health authorities before the weekend,” she said.

The most recent reading at two stations at Sunset Beach at the mouth of False Creek on July 3 showed 548 and 455 E. coli per 100 mL; at Snug Cove on July 5, there was a single reading of 416. Swimming advisories were initially issued on June 27 for Snug Cove, and June 29 at Sunset Beach.

The July 5 readings from three sites in west, central and east False Creek show readings of 41, 80, and 319, respectively, of E. coli per 100 mL.

recent Metro Vancouver report looking at E. coli found that beaches had swimming advisories for about 50 days in 2018, the highest since 2014 when there were 240 days of advisories.

Determining exactly what causes a high E. coli reading in any one location isn’t easy, Bishay said.

Reasons can include storm water runoff, animal waste, algae blooms, water temperature, and discharge from recreational vehicles, boats, septic tanks, and sewers.

“We’re not consistently better under wet or under dry conditions,” Bishay said.

Metro Vancouver doesn’t test for differences in E. coli between species, she said. There is no way to tell, for example, whether elevated E. coli are from the growing number of Canada geese around False Creek and English Bay.

The high E. Coli counts in 2014 led to the formation of the False Creek Water Quality Working Group and to a study tracking the source of the bacteria. Results are due later this year.

“It is hoped that the information gained from this study will be helpful to better understand the factors affecting recreational water quality in the region and the sources that may have contributed to the elevated bacterial counts in 2014 and 2018,” the Metro Vancouver report said.

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B.C. harm-reduction sites, doctors struggling with new type of overdose

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Sarah Blyth is director of the Overdose Prevention Society in Vancouver.


Doctors and frontline health-care workers say they are responding to an increasing number of overdoses involving opioids contaminated with benzodiazepines, restricted substances normally used to treat anxiety.

Benzodiazepines don’t respond to emergency treatments such as naloxone, or Narcan, which usually temporarily reverses the effects of an opioid overdose. Instead, drug users are left groggy, disoriented and suffering from memory loss. That means users may remain unconscious even after naloxone is administered, according to Overdose Prevention Society director Sarah Blyth.

“It’s way more challenging for all frontline workers because a person will overdose, you’ll give them Narcan, which normally brings them back into consciousness and fully awake and alert … but this means you give them Narcan and they still need to be monitored for most of the day,” said Blyth.

“It adds to everything. It adds to the crisis. It’s another level of stress.”

Blyth said the prevention society saw 16 such overdoses in a 24-hour period last weekend.

Dr. Keith Ahamad, a researcher at the B.C. Centre on Substance Use, said these overdoses are becoming more common at St. Paul’s Hospital.

“We’ve been hearing about it for months, but over the past couple of weeks the clinical presentations have been much more significant,” said Ahamad.

Opioids and benzodiazepines are both sedatives, but they work along different neurological pathways. That means using them together brings a magnified risk of overdose and different withdrawal syndromes, making it more challenging to treat. Health-care workers don’t know why the two drugs are being cut together.

“We’ve warned people using opioids to not take benzodiazepines because we know the combination can cause overdoses,” said Dr. Mark Lysyshyn, a medical health officer with Vancouver Coastal Health.

Samples of contaminated drugs taken earlier this year showed traces of etizolam, which is chemically related to benzodiazepine. Since then, Lysyshyn said stronger, illicitly-produced benzodiazepine variants have appeared.

“The illegal drug supply will produce dangerous drugs,” he said. “This is the last type of compound we’d want to see mixed with opioids, but here it is.”

Drugs cut with these contaminants have been reported in other B.C. communities, including Powell River this week. But the scope of the problem is unknown because benzodiazepine test strips do not detect etizolam.

“You see a little bit of it, and all of a sudden it’s in everything,” said Blyth.

Vancouver police seized just 47 grams of benzodiazepines in all of 2018, none of which were etizolam. But over 6,100 grams of seized drugs were classified as “unknown” and were not tested or identified, according to data obtained through a freedom of information request.

Medications to reverse benzodiazepine-caused overdoses exist, but are dangerous to use and restricted to hospitals, Lysyshyn said.

“It’s not easily administered like naloxone is, so it’s not the kind of thing we can make widely available,” he said.

Ahamad said the contaminated drugs makes treating withdrawal and addiction symptoms more complicated because users may develop a physical dependence to benzodiazepines without realizing it.

“We’re going to be hamstrung in our ability to treat people with our classic treatment (methods) if the drugs that are being used are of a different class,” said Ahamad.

B.C.’s overdose crisis killed 1,514 people last year. Most of those deaths involved fentanyl, but over 16 per cent involved “other” drugs including benzodiazepines, over-the-counter medications, and other drugs, according to coroner data.

Blyth said these overdoses are the consequence of a toxic drug supply and urged government to make responding to the crisis a central campaign issue in the coming federal election.

“We want to make sure people are safe, but we also want to make sure we’re getting somewhere, someday, where we’re not in this situation anymore,” she said.

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Ballsy participants sought for Vancouver testicle study

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Dr. Ryan Flannigan inside VGH’s Robert Ho research building in Vancouver. Dr. Flannigan is leading a study on a new way to treat scrotum pain. Photo: Arlen Redekop/Postmedia

Arlen Redekop / PNG

Males who suffer debilitating scrotal pain can now sign up for a new study using an old but reformulated numbing medication with lidocaine.

Nearly five per cent of males can suffer so much that mere walking can be painful if they have chronic pain in their testicles and scrotum, the latter of which are the sacs of skin surrounding the testicles.

Dr. Ryan Flannigan, a Vancouver General Hospital urologist who is the director of the male infertility and sexual medicine research program at the University of B.C., said that he has seen up to 100 men with chronic scrotum pain in the last six months alone. Some patients come from as far away as the Northwest Territories. But many men don’t bother to seek medical attention because, as Flannigan points out, males are generally more reluctant than women to go to doctors and more inclined to brush off medical concerns.

Flannigan, who specializes in testicular and penile abnormalities, said testicular pain is described by patients as either constant aching or episodes of sharp pain.

The scrotal pain condition occurs in a range of ages — from teenagers to men in their ’60s — but it most commonly affects those in their 20s and 30s, Flannigan said.

While conventional treatment has involved injecting a lidocaine anesthetic into the spermatic cord to help numb pain, it is temporary relief for only up to four hours. So in the new study, soon to enrol 20 patients, lidocaine will be reformulated into a polymer paste that is designed for a slow, more sustained release, over seven to 14 days.

The needlepoke through the skin at the top of the scrotum into the spermatic cord can be uncomfortable but Flannigan said he tells patients “it’s like a visit to the dentist when the freezing goes in.”

In a study that will soon enrol participants who suffer from severe scrotum pain, Dr. Ryan Flannigan will be injecting a newly formulated solution of a numbing agent designed to provide longer relief. Photo: Arlen Redekop/Postmedia

Arlen Redekop /


The paste, developed by a UBC spinoff company called Sustained Therapeutics (which is funding the study), will be injected into tissues, not blood vessels. Flannigan said the polymer material will “naturally break down” as it is metabolized.

Besides lidocaine-based injections, other treatments that may be tried include anti-inflammatories, steroids, and sometimes even surgery to cut nerves that are transmitting the pain. Physiotherapy can also help when the pain originates in another area of the body and is referred to the testicles.

Preclinical trials in animals at UBC affirmed the safety and proof of concept behind the intervention. Now the goal of the Phase 1 trial in humans will be to determine a safe and effective dose.

Flannigan said common causes of the condition include a blow to the testicle area, a previous infection in the area, inflammation in the spermatic cord that stores and carries sperm, and nerves pinched during hernia repair or a previous vasectomy. Pain can also be caused by enlarged veins in the scrotum, cysts, or kidney stones. The cause remains unknown in nearly half of cases.

Flannigan said men from around B.C. — or even outside the province — will be considered for the trial. To register an interest, males should contact the clinical trials unit at the Vancouver Prostate Centre or call 604-875-5675.

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Twitter: @MedicineMatters





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Mental health and addiction youth teams launched in Maple Ridge schools

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BC Minister of Mental Health and Addictions Judy Darcy.

Jason Payne / PNG Files

Students in the Maple Ridge-Pitt Meadows School District will become the first to get team support, or so-called wraparound care, for those with mental health and addiction challenges.

Mental Health and Addictions Minister Judy Darcy says the integrated teams will work with schools and specialized service providers to offer complete care to students and their families.

Last month, the government announced its 10-year Pathway to Hope program aimed at helping and supporting young people with mental health and addiction challenges.

Darcy says the government has committed $2.5 billion for mental health and addiction services, and that includes $10 million in grants to non-profit groups to offer affordable counselling to youth and families.

The government said the teams will work with those experiencing challenges and their families won’t have to retell their stories to different care providers or search on their own for the supports they need.

Darcy says the new mental health and addiction services model will be implemented in the district by this 2019.

“It is very striking that with all the diversity of perspective and the diversity of experience, there was so much clarity on the way to go,” says Darcy, who made the announcement a Maple Ridge elementary school.

“The Pathway to Hope focuses on our most urgent priorities first, so that we’re helping people when they need it now and reducing demand on services down the road.”

After the government’s program announcement in June, a B.C. coroner’s jury examining the overdose death of 16-year-old Victoria-area youth Elliot Eurchuk called on government to improve early detection of mental health and substance use disorders within schools.

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Chris Lalonde: Governments must find optimal regulatory balance with vaping

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The increasing popularity of vaping among teens has many people concerned.

Joe Raedle / Getty Images

Across Canada, underage youth are legally restricted from purchasing alcohol, marijuana, cigarettes and vapes. But according to recently released survey data, they are using them anyway.

The media headlines say it all. A recent report in the British Medical Journal shows that Canada has experienced a “massive,” “staggering,” and “whopping” increase in teen vaping. Among 16- to 19-year-olds, last-30-days vaping use increased 74 per cent between 2017 and 2018.

The provincial government and the Canadian Cancer Society used the data from the report to publicly demand that the federal government immediately introduce vaping regulations that would restrict nicotine content, device design and flavours. Their failure to do so, the B.C. government implied, would result in B.C. introducing more restrictive provincial regulations.

What is not mentioned is that both federal and provincial government vaping legislation already exists that restricts sales to anyone under the age of 18, promotion, display advertising and communication, and limits features like certain flavours and designs thought to be appealing to youth. Is this single set of data in the BMJ report enough to justify the hasty introduction of more draconian regulatory measures that could simultaneously reduce the appeal of these products to adult smokers that rely on vaping to reduce or quit smoking?

What’s more concerning is that the same report shows that teen cigarette smoking in the past 30 days increased by 45 per cent. The use of alcohol by teens in the past 12 months actually decreased by three per cent, but cannabis use went up by 19 per cent.

The important question is which of these numbers should we be worried about? Let’s look a little closer at the actual data.

According to the report, 60 per cent of youth used alcohol and 27 per cent used cannabis in the past 12 months, 16 per cent smoked cigarettes in the past 30 days, and 15 per cent vaped.

Cigarette smoking and drinking carry far greater health risks than vaping or cannabis. But apparently, we should be especially alarmed by teen vaping.

If, as health authorities all agree, vaping is safer — not safe, but safer — than smoking cigarettes, then, perhaps, we should think clearly about what we hope to accomplish by battling teen vaping by introducing provincial regulations that go even further than regulations for smoking or drinking.

If what we hope is that teens who already smoke might be tempted to switch to vaping, then the report contains some good news. Among current teen smokers, 44 per cent are also vaping. Even “experimental smokers” are also vaping (29 per cent). Are they on their way to fully switching from cigarettes to vaping (likely, and a good thing), or from dual-use to just smoking (unlikely, and a bad thing)?

But what about teens who have never smoked? Are they being lured into a lifetime of addiction by vaping? Here, at least, the news is rather good from a public-health perspective.

It turns out teens are not very keen on vaping or smoking. Most of them have never vaped, and among those who have tried it (20 per cent), just three per cent have vaped in the past week and only 0.6 per cent vaped on more than 15 of the last 30 days. That’s just 14 teens out of the 2,441 surveyed.

The report shows that the number of teens who never smoked surveyed in 2017, just five, skyrocketed to 14 in 2018. But wait, that’s up from 0.2 per cent to 0.6 per cent — a mind-numbing 200-per-cent increase!

Let’s get serious. Perhaps we should worry more about the 2,227 teens who used alcohol or the 1,425 who smoked cigarettes.

Chris Lalonde is a University of Victoria psychology professor and the academic research adviser for Rights for Vapers, a vaping advocates organization dedicated to the advancement of Canadian-based research on vaping.

Letters to the editor should be sent to [email protected] The editorial pages editor is Gordon Clark, who can be reached at [email protected].

CLICK HERE to report a typo.

Is there more to this story? We’d like to hear from you about this or any other stories you think we should know about. Email [email protected].

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B.C. officials to review records to ensure students vaccinated against measles

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In this file photo taken on April 05, 2019 shows a nurse preparing the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine


The B.C. government says public health officials will start reviewing school enrolment records of kindergarten to Grade 12 students to ensure children are immunized against contagious diseases including measles.

The Health Ministry says officials will do their review between August and October and contact parents if their children are not up to date on the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine.

It says most parents are already complying with the vaccination requirement so there is no need for them to do anything before their children begin classes in September, when it will be mandatory to report students’ immunization records.

Health Minister Adrian Dix says the goal of the first year of the reporting requirement will be to get children caught up on vaccinations by the end of the school year.

He says a provincial catch-up vaccination program has seen 33,000 children immunized since April.

Dix says public health nurses have reported that more families who were initially hesitant are now choosing to immunize their kids.

“They’ve noticed more new and expecting parents take an active interest in their child’s vaccination schedule,” he says.

“It should be said that older students in Grades 10, 11 and 12 have been our most significant uptake in terms of immunization. Many or most of them had the opportunity to read immunization consent.”

The voluntary program was introduced after a measles outbreak in B.C. linked to two French schools in Vancouver.

Health authorities have already reviewed more than half a million students’ immunization records and parents or guardians of those with incomplete or missing records have been notified.

Measles spreads through virus-laden droplets after an infected person coughs or sneezes.

Infection with the measles virus starts with a high fever, coughing, sneezing and red eyes, followed by a blotchy, painful rash that starts on the face and spreads to cover the whole body.

The disease can lead to complications such as ear infections, blindness, pneumonia and encephalitis, which is a swelling of the brain, and can be fatal.

The first shot of the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine is given when children are a year old, and the second dose usually follows when they are about four to six years old.


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B.C. teen overdose inquest recommends improvements in substance abuse treatment

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Elliot Eurchuk poses in this undated family handout photo. The parents of a Victoria-area teen who died of a drug overdose say they don’t want other families to experience the trauma of having a child slip their caring hands.


VICTORIA — A British Columbia coroner’s inquest jury recommends improvements in provincial substance abuse treatment, detection and prevention services for young people following an inquest into the overdose of a Victoria-area teen.

The jury cites B.C.’s health and education ministries and the Vancouver Island Health Authority in its recommendations after hearing from more than 40 witnesses into the April 20, 2018, death of Elliot Eurchuk.

The jury concludes the 16-year-old’s death was accidental, resulting from a mixed intoxication of drugs that included fentanyl, cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine.

The jury recommends the education ministry develop programs for early detection of mental health and substance use disorders at schools and implement plans to ease the transition back to school for students who undergo drug treatment programs.

It also says the health ministry should provide youth with more long-term residential substance use treatment facilities throughout B.C.

Eurchuk’s parents, Rachel Staples and Brock Eurchuk, testified their attempts to help their son were thwarted by outdated privacy policies.

The B.C. Coroners Service called the inquest saying there was a public interest in hearing the circumstances of the teen’s death, and that a jury would have the opportunity to make recommendations to prevent similar deaths.

Rachel Staples and Brock Eurchuk with sons Isaac, Oliver and Elliott.

Rachel Staples and Brock Eurchuk with sons Isaac, Oliver and Elliott (far right).

Family photo

Eurchuk’s parents said at the conclusion of testimony that they don’t want others to endure the trauma of not being able to help children when they need it most.

“At numerous junctures the health-care system failed Elliot,” said Brock Eurchuk. “The education system failed Elliot. The laws that we’re trying to parent our children with are fraught with flaws.”

He said current privacy laws prevented them from knowing the full extent of their son’s substance abuse because he consistently denied using drugs and when he finally disclosed to his family doctor, he asked that his parents not be told.

Eurchuk said current laws were designed decades ago to guarantee young people privacy about birth control and sexuality issues.

“Let’s dial it up 30 years later and talk about the opioid crisis and what these kids are exposed to on a daily basis,” he said. “It’s a challenging, dangerous new world.”

Staples said the family wasn’t able to receive detailed medical information about Eurchuk’s addiction, which prevented them from developing a united strategy and treatment plan.

“That’s what it creates, because the parents are trying to make a child understand an adult’s perspective when a child has a child’s brain that’s been hijacked by opioids,” she said. “Family dynamics are disrupted.”

Staples, a dentist and also a mother of two sons younger than Eurchuk, testified she was shocked in 2016 to discover her son had sedation drugs from her dental office stashed in his bedroom. She said she suspected her son was perhaps smoking marijuana, but had no idea about other drugs.

The mother testified she watched Eurchuk slide over three years from a bright, but underachieving student and talented athlete to drug-sick teen.

The inquest heard from Kelowna pediatrician Tom Warshawski who described an overdose as a life-and-death situation where a young person’s brain and actions are being controlled by potentially deadly drugs.

He said he supports placing young people in treatment facilities against their will if they’ve suffered an overdose.

Warshawski said committing young people to secure treatment facilities under B.C.’s Mental Health Act, where they can’t leave for a time period of about one week, allows doctors to help clean the drugs out of their systems and open their minds to the possibility of future treatment.

The inquest heard Eurchuk’s parents placed their son in secure care after he overdosed on illicit drugs at the hospital. At the time, he was undergoing treatment for a blood infection that is common to intravenous drug users.

Staples said the move only further alienated their son from the parents because he felt they had betrayed him.

Dr. Perry Kendall, B.C.’s former provincial health officer, told the inquest jury he wasn’t a supporter of involuntary care for youths with drug issues. He said there is not enough evidence showing such treatment programs work.

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Smoky summers: Health experts extend their warnings to pregnant women

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When wildfire smoke enveloped Metro Vancouver last summer, Nikki Rogers noticed soot collecting on the walls of her White Rock condo and closed her windows to keep the bad air out.

“I tried to stay inside because I did not enjoy being outside,” recalled Rogers, who works in a hair salon. “I would never do any kind of exercising or jogging or walking outside because anything that promotes heavy breathing outdoors would be terrible.”

This summer she will take even greater precautions because she is pregnant. And this is the first year that Vancouver Coastal Health and Metro Vancouver have included pregnant women on their list of people especially vulnerable to wildfire smoke, along with asthmatics, the elderly, and people with chronic heart and lung conditions.

Rogers said she will research the best way to keep herself and her baby safe, but laments that wildfire smoke is one more thing expectant mothers will likely need to worry about this July and August.

“We shouldn’t have months of just smoke in the air. That’s just awful,” she said. “Every year it gets worse and worse. It is just getting out of hand.”

Nikki Rogers, who is pregnant, will keep the windows of her White Rock condo closed this summer to keep any wildfire smoke out.

Experts believe British Columbians are about to experience another hot, smoke-filled summer, basing their prediction on the higher-than-average temperatures and drought so far in 2019 — a trend that is expected to continue.

“We expect increased wildfire and smoke risk, and that includes in the southwest where we are,” said a Metro Vancouver air-quality engineer, Francis Ries.

Just in the last week, a stubborn wildfire on steep terrain near Lions Bay snarled traffic on the busy Sea to Sky Highway for days, and a fire broke out Monday near Pender Harbour on the Sechelt Peninsula.

A helicopter dumps sea water on June 23 on a wildfire near Lions Bay.



Fires started earlier in 2019

Hotter, drier conditions contributed to fires in early spring, far sooner than in other years. Since April 1, the B.C. Wildfire Service has recorded 377 fires that have burned more than 110 square kilometres.

The summers of 2017 and 2018 were the worst on record for smoky skies — a provincial state of emergency was declared both years over wildfires — and much of the haze in Metro Vancouver drifted in from big fires in other parts of B.C.

The smoke led officials to issue a record number of air-quality advisories, and give extensive advice on how residents should try to remain healthy.

This year, local health and municipal agencies added pregnant women to the list of those most vulnerable to the smoke after lobbying by Sarah Henderson, an environmental health scientist at the B.C. Centre for Disease Control.

She advocated the change based on an “evidence review” and academic research that showed mothers exposed to extreme wildfire smoke give birth to smaller babies.

A University of California, Berkeley study found that pregnant women breathing in wildfire smoke during their second trimester in 2003, a terrible fire season in Southern California, had babies that were about 10 grams lighter than women not exposed to smoke. The results were small but “significant,” researchers found, because they showed “climate change can affect health.”

Ten grams would be enough to “push some babies into a low-birth-weight category,” added Henderson, noting undersized infants can face challenges.

Based on pregnancy and population statistics, Henderson predicts a repeat of last summer’s smoky skies could lead to 20 babies in B.C. being born a bit smaller. It’s not a big number, but one that could hurt 20 families.

“And that is kind of the tip of the iceberg in some ways because nobody has looked at preterm birth or malformations, if that smoke exposure happens to pregnant women,” added Henderson, who is also an associate professor in the UBC school of population and public health.

She has applied for funding to do her own study of the outcome of women who were pregnant in B.C.’s Interior, where the smoke was the thickest during the last two summers.

Sarah Henderson of the B.C. Centre for Disease Control.

Wildfire smoke is a toxic, chemical soup

Wildfire smoke contains many pollutants, but the most dangerous to human health is fine particulate matter, a mixture of solid particles and liquid droplets that are generally 2.5 micrometers or less in size — about one-30th the diameter on a strand of hair.

“The very small particles can be inhaled deeply into your lungs and then get into your blood stream, and irritate and lead to inflammation,” said Emily Peterson, a Vancouver Coastal Health environmental health scientist.

A typical summer day in Metro Vancouver would feature 10 or 15 micrograms a cubic metre of these fine particulates, but during the height of last summer’s smoky skies the quantity jumped tenfold.

Smoky air makes it harder for lungs to get oxygen into the blood stream, and it can irritate the respiratory system and cause inflammation in other parts of the body. Common symptoms include eye irritation, sore throat, coughing, wheezy breathing and headaches, and there is an increased risk of infections for some, such as pneumonia in older people and ear infections in children.

At-risk people — including those with chronic lung or heart conditions and now pregnant women — should “pay attention to the smoke much earlier” this summer, said the VCH medical health officer, Dr. James Lu.

“We do start with the vulnerable population, but if the smoke (concentration) is high enough we do encourage people who are normally healthy to take precautions as well,” Lu added.

Among the precautions backed by medical experts: Stay inside places with filtered air, such as most community centres, libraries or malls; drive with the windows up, the air conditioning on, and the recirculate-air button activated to reduce the amount of smoke getting into your car; and drink lots of water.

One expert calculated that people doing exercise or working outside during the height of the wildfire smoke could inhale the equivalent of two packages of cigarettes a day.

Because most people typically spend 90 per cent of their days indoors, Henderson highly recommends buying a portable air cleaner, which plugs into a wall socket and can be moved from room to room. These purifiers remove 40 to 80 per cent of the fine particles found in smoke, but people with respiratory conditions are encouraged to buy higher-performing HEPA (High Efficiency Particulate Air) filters, the Centre for Disease Control says.

If people are outside and want to wear a mask, Henderson said the best option is a well-fitted N95 respirator. A surgical mask can offer limited protection. A cloth mask is close to useless at keeping out the fine particles in smoke.

Doctors’ visits, asthma prescriptions skyrocket

Most people can manage irritations from smoke without medical attention, but those with severe symptoms should see a doctor.

Wildfire smoke caused a slight rise last summer in the number of people visiting Vancouver Coastal Health emergency rooms, although the increase wasn’t even across all communities: North Vancouver and Richmond had more hospital visits, while other cities did not, said Lu.

“What we did see were increased visits with respiratory symptoms, asthma and people short of breath,” the medical health officer told Postmedia.

Dr. James Lu of Vancouver Coastal Health.

The B.C. Health Ministry could not provide information about higher traffic in emergency rooms in other health regions, saying its data does not let it differentiate between treatment specifically for wildfire smoke and other respiratory issues.

However, Centre for Disease Control statistics suggest medical services across B.C. were harder hit when wildfire smoke was heavy. In the summers of 2017 and 2018, 45,000 extra doses of asthma medication were dispensed and there were 10,000 extra visits to doctors for asthma-related conditions in B.C., Henderson said.

“It does stack up, the impact is quite extreme,” she said. “On a very smoky day in Metro Vancouver, there were 350 extra doctor visits.”

The Centre for Disease Control tabulates this information daily in the B.C. Asthma Prediction System, which was launched after previous severe wildfire seasons. The surveillance system tracks asthma-related doctor visits and the prescriptions filled for lung conditions, and is used to warn health officials about the anticipated effects of wildfire smoke.

This summer is also expected to experience a boost in asthma treatments, given what happened in May after a significant wildfire near Fort St. John. “We had this one day of smoke in Fort St John, and the asthma visits skyrocketed,” Henderson said.

During the past few years, Vancouver Costal Health has sent reminders to family physicians to help their patients get ready for smoke expected in July and August — such as ensuring medications for patients with chronic heart or lung disease are up to date.

“I think what we are hoping for is to perhaps educate the public and primary-care physicians in helping people to be prepared so that they don’t really need to come to the emergency,” Lu said.

More than 3,000 ‘smoky skies’ bulletins issued

The provincial Environment Ministry issues “smoky skies” warning bulletins when wildfire smoke gets bad in all areas of the province except Metro Vancouver, which releases its own air quality advisories.

In 2017, 1,646 air-quality advisories were issued across B.C., and that jumped to 1,742 in 2018. There have been 69 warnings so far this year, but that number will likely increase as the majority of 2018 bulletins were issued between late July and late August.

The province monitors 63 regions, and six of those have had 100 or more smoky skies bulletins since 2017 due to bad fires nearby, including Quesnel, Penticton, Prince George, Williams Lake and Kamloops. Other communities in B.C.’s Interior and the Cariboo region have also been hard hit, with just under 100 bulletins issued in the last two years in Vernon, Kelowna, Cranbrook and 100 Mile House.

A wildfire near Fraser Lake in May.

Submitted /

B.C. Wildfire Service

Only Haida Gwaii, off B.C.’s northwest coast, has had no smoke-related air quality warnings since 2017.

The Environment Ministry was unable to provide information about how many advisories it issued in years with far fewer forest fires than 2017 and 2018. But statistics from Metro Vancouver indicate those two years were off the charts.

There were 22 days in Metro Vancouver last summer with poor air quality due to forest fires, mainly between late July and late August. In 2017, it was 19 days of unhealthy amounts of smoke.

The region’s figures, dating back to 1996, showed no other years with near that number of hazy days, the closest being 10 days in 2009 and 2015, when there were also some forest fires. In several years, including 2011, 2013 and 2016, there were no days with poor air quality.

Metro Vancouver’s advisories show much of the air pollution came from forest fires in other parts of the province, but the air was also affected by some local blazes, such as a bog fire in Richmond and a barge blaze in Surrey.

No air quality advisories have been issued so far in 2019; Metro Vancouver said the smoke residents smelled earlier this week from the Lions Bay fire was “below advisory thresholds.”

Ozone pollution rises due to wildfires

Metro Vancouver’s summer 2019 outlook warns of the potential for increased ozone due to higher temperatures and wildfires. Ozone is described as “good up high; bad nearby” — ozone in the atmosphere protects from UV radiation, but when lower to the ground it damages lungs and destroys ecosystems according to a Colorado State University academic paper, Ozone Levels Elevated in Presence of Wildfire Smoke.

“We’ve seen high ozone levels at monitoring stations which we never, under normal circumstances, expect to have high ozone,” said Metro Vancouver’s Ries. “We almost never have high ozone in the western part of the valley, downtown Vancouver and through into Burnaby,” he said, except in 2017 and 2018 when “the highest ozone levels we received were in that part of the region.”

Ries said more studies, including ones that focus on B.C., are making a strong link between climate change and the exacerbation of wildfire seasons.

Francis Ries, Metro Vancouver air quality engineer, and Roger Quan, Metro’s director of air quality and climate change.

In 2017, 65,000 British Columbians were evacuated and 509 buildings burned during wildfires that scorched 12,000 square km of land. The 2018 forest fires were even more destructive, consuming 13,500 sq. km — although fewer people were evacuated (6,000) and fewer structures lost (158).

Over the last two summers, the provincial government grossly outspent its wildfire budgets — by 10 times in 2017, when it cost more than $650 million to fight the fires. This year, the NDP is trying to be better prepared for the unknown by nearly doubling its wildfire budget, boosting it from $64 million in 2018 to $101 million.

Smoky summers in Vancouver may become “the new normal,” if not every year then at least every other year, VCH’s Lu predicted.

“We do not expect this to go away. This is going to be a way of life, unfortunately,” he said. “So I think the need to include that in your consideration of how to stay healthy is important.”

[email protected]

Twitter: @loriculbert

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