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Kelowna is a city located in British Columbia, the westernmost province in Canada. It sits of Okanagan Lake within the Okanagan Valley and is home to some 142,146 people as of 2020. Over July in 2021, Kelowna was seen with some extremely high levels of air pollution, measured in the form of US AQI. The US AQI figure is aggregated from the volume of the several main pollutants found in the air throughout Kelowna and the rest of the country.
These main pollutants used in the US AQI calculation are ones such as ozone (O3), nitrogen dioxide (NO2), sulfur dioxide (SO2), carbon monoxide (CO) and both PM2.5 and PM10.
US AQI readings came in with figures as high as 260 in late July of 2021. This is a considerably elevated reading, placed within the ‘very unhealthy’ rating bracket, which requires a US AQI reading of 150.5 to 250.4 to be classified as such. This represents an extremely poor level of air quality, which would cause numerous ill health effects to those who are exposed. Many of these health issues will be discussed in further detail in the following questions.
During times such as these, recommended procedures include staying indoors and avoiding outdoor activities and strenuous exercise. Doors and windows should be sealed, along with running air purifiers, if possible, to prevent indoor air pollution levels from rising excessively. During the time when the above reading of 260 was taken, the PM2.5 count was found to be 21 times above the World Health Organization's (WHO's) recommended level of fine particle exposure, making the air highly damaging to breathe. Other elevated readings of US AQI that were seen over July include figures of 155 and 162, as well as 214 and 219.
Whilst there are many ambient sources of air pollution present in Kelowna that aid in raising the yearly ambient PM2.5 and US AQI readings, there are the more severe and spontaneous sources such as the wildfires present, which can cause the extreme spikes in US AQI readings that have been witnessed throughout mid-2021. These are the number one causes of dangerous levels of air pollution, however, there are also many other causes of air contamination that are present, which will also be touched upon due to their role in raising year-round pollution levels (which are responsible for the aforementioned ‘ambient’ air pollution readings seen in Kelowna, as opposed to the sudden and extreme spikes caused directly by fires). Of note is that a significant amount of pollution, both in Canada and worldwide, finds itself emanating from various combustion sources, with other sources being ones that release large amounts of fine particles into the atmosphere.
Besides the extremely sizeable amount of pollution being released into the air in Kelowna as a direct result of the fires taking place, other sources of air pollution would include emissions from vehicles. Heavy-duty freight vehicles in particular that utilize diesel as their main fuel source can top the list of offenders, and all vehicles release large amounts of microscopic rubber particles into the air, as well as into the surrounding environment, causing damage to the health of those who are subject to breathing it, as well as damaging the environment. The eventual wear and tear of tens of thousands of tire treads over the years allow such high quantities of microscopic rubber particles to contaminate the air and environment.
Others include emissions from factories and power plants, the latter of which can release pollution based off the burning of fossil fuels such as coal, natural gas and diesel. The amounts released can climb higher during the colder months of the year, due to increased demand placed on power plants to provide heating to homes and businesses.
During bouts of severe air pollution, Kelowna would have many pollutants found in its atmosphere. Whilst there would be a prominent amount of the main pollutants used in the US AQI reading, as were touched on in the previous question, there would still be many more contaminants found that come from many sources, many of which have highly detrimental effects on the health of those that are exposed, with the severity and likelihood of such adverse effects occurring going up along with the level of US AQI and PM2.5 figures being recorded.
Due to the widespread combustion of trees, plants and other organic material being burnt in wildfires, pollutants such as black carbon and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) would be released in large quantities. Black carbon is the main component in soot, and has potent carcinogenic effects when inhaled, along with also possessing climate-changing properties. Black carbon can absorb solar radiation and release it directly as heat, causing localized climate change to take place with its heating effect. Black carbon can be found coating areas such as roadsides or other such areas that see a high volume of traffic passing through them, due to the prevalence of its release from vehicle exhausts.
Some examples of VOCs include other carcinogenic materials such as benzene, as well as toluene, xylene, methylene chloride, styrene and formaldehyde. These all have highly negative effects on the health of those exposed and can maintain a gaseous state even at considerably lower temperatures, thus making them easier to breathe even during months when the temperature drops significantly.
One of the pollutants used in the US AQI calculation, ozone, is formed typically when an abundance of certain chemicals and gases are met with the correct meteorological conditions. The various oxides of nitrogen (NOx), when exposed to larger amounts of sunlight, can undergo a chemical reaction causing ozone to be formed. Ozone is a secondary pollutant, meaning that it is formed in the atmosphere as a result of ideal weather conditions plus the presence of other required chemicals. Primary pollutants come directly from a singular source, ranging from fires, car engines and factory boilers. Of note is that certain pollutants such as nitrogen dioxide can be both primary and secondary pollutants, being produced directly from combustion sources, as well as forming as a result of the aforementioned processes.
Other pollutants that may be found in industrial areas, or released from material burnt from fires can be ones such as heavy metals, which include mercury, lead and cadmium. These can contaminate bodies of water, as well as the soil, affecting ecosystems and the environment. On the occasion that synthetic materials are burnt in fires, even more hazardous pollutants can be released, which include (among others) dioxins, furans, benzo(a)pyrenes and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, along with polychlorinated biphenyls, all of which can have severe consequences on the health of those who are exposed.
During spikes of high pollution, many adverse health effects may occur. These include ones that are more superficial in nature, and typically cease when exposure is lessened or halted outright. Among them are dry coughs, chest pain, aggravation of pre-existing health conditions, as well as irritation to the exposed mucous membranes of the face, which includes the eyes, ears, mouth and nose.
Skin conditions may arise, due to the irritating effect that chemicals and fine particles can have on the body. Acne, psoriasis, eczema and atopic dermatitis may all appear, as well as instances of skin cancer going up in more severe cases (particularly when pollution exposure is prolonged over extended periods). Conditions of the pulmonary and cardiac variety are common to also present themselves, with instances of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) appearing. This is an umbrella term that contains within it several respiratory ailments, which include asthma, pneumonia, bronchitis and emphysema.
When exposure is more severe, as is the case when large clouds of smoke, haze and fine particles drift over a city such as during the wildfire events taking place of late July of 2021, more serious health conditions will appear. These include heightened risks of heart attacks, cancer, ischemic heart disease, arrhythmias, stroke and even death. Many cases of premature deaths are attributed directly to pollution exposure each year, both in Canada and throughout the world, with this number becoming more prominent in areas that have consistently high pollution numbers.
PM2.5, one of the two forms of particle pollution (with the other being the larger, or coarser PM10) is one of the most dangerous types of pollutants that can be found throughout Kelowna and the rest of the country. It has a size of 2.5 micrometers or less in diameter, making it roughly thirty times smaller than that of human hair.
PM2.5 can consist of a variety of different materials, adding to the danger that it presents to health upon inhalation. These materials can be ones such as sulfates, metals, microscopic water vapor, mold spores (which can vary in their classification depending on the size), as well as soot, dust and silica particles. due to its extremely small size, PM2.5 can penetrate deep into the tissue of the lungs, bypassing the body’s natural defense system and causing inflammation of the lungs themselves, as well as irritation to the entire respiratory tract.
Once inside the lungs, due to its minute size, it can pass into the bloodstream via the alveoli or small air sacs whose main function is the transportation of oxygen. Damage to blood vessels can be incurred, along with many of the ailments that were mentioned in the previous question. As a rule, the smaller the particle size is, the more danger it can present. Larger particles can irritate exposed mucous membranes and aggravate various conditions, whilst ultrafine particles can cause all manner of potentially terminal illnesses, making the prevention of their prevalence in the atmosphere all the more important, as well as finding ways to reduce one’s inhalation of said ultrafine particles.
Despite having extremely high levels of air pollution present in its atmosphere towards the end of July in 2021, Kelowna, like many cities in Canada, also sees significantly cleaner air quality. Canada ranks amongst one of the cleanest countries in the world, with many of the different provinces and their various cities having PM2.5 readings that indicate some extremely appreciable levels of air cleanliness, coming in well within the World Health Organization's (WHO's) target goal of 10 μg/m³ or less, with the closer to 0 of course being the most optimal.
Even during the highly polluted month of July, with the advent of many fires and their polluting fallout, there were still days in which the US AQI reading fell within the most optimal rating bracket, although due to the nature of smoke and other clouds of fine particles or haze, they were somewhat on the higher end of the 'good' air quality rating spectrum. Readings of 47 and 50 appeared over certain days, despite being surrounded by other days with vastly heightened US AQI figures. This shows that with the absence of wildfires, Kelowna can have its pollution levels drop down to far more optimal levels, even with lingering pollution in the direct vicinity and nearby areas.
This 'good' air quality rating bracket requires a US AQI reading of 0 to 50 to be classified as such and indicates a period in which the population can go about their daily activities without respiratory irritation, or the aggravation of pre-existing health conditions such as asthma (along with the variety of other COPD related ailments as mentioned previously). This air quality rating is color-coded as green, in the same manner as the more polluted air quality ratings are, only with corresponding lighter colors for more optimal levels of air cleanliness. Despite the US AQI readings coming in on the absolute higher end of the 'good' rating, the target was still nevertheless met, giving Kelowna some prominent respite during the dangerously polluted month of July.
Data for 2020 and years prior has not yet been properly recorded and calibrated, and as such 2021 onwards will show a clearer picture of how the air pollution levels in Kelowna truly are. These are subject to change over time, and much like the pollution forecasts, should be checked upon for future changes and updates. For the present era, with wildfires being a significant threat to all inhabitants of Kelowna, the previously mentioned preventative measures should be put into place and utilized by all citizens, particularly by those who are more at risk and have the potential to suffer severe adverse effects.
In closing, Kelowna can have a great level of air quality, yet still shares many of the pollutive issues that British Columbia is subject to. Increasing information on air quality is becoming available, due to further emphasis and importance being placed on the topic to safeguard the health of its citizens, as well as the various ecosystems and environment.