Diagnosis confirmed: Asthma ‘triggered by woodsmoke’ 

<– Back to personal stories

by Sherril Guthrie, Courtenay, March 2018

In August of 2017 I was diagnosed with asthma and after a series of challenge tests and experience logging over time, it was confirmed that my asthma was triggered by woodsmoke.  I’m not impacted by pollens, dust, humidity, allergies,  or even mould.  Those are not triggers for me.

It’s woodsmoke and the chronic, unhealthy levels of PM2.5 here in the Comox Valley that have triggered my asthma. And sadly, it’s highly likely that if we hadn’t moved here four years ago, I wouldn’t be an asthma patient.

Prior to moving to our Crown Isle neighbourhood in Courtenay, I was quite athletic and during the first three years of living here I continued to be very active outdoors—walking, hiking, cycling, golfing, gardening, and you name it.  But often in those early years I would also notice that my nose was running a lot for no apparent reason and my throat and chest were burning and itchy after exercising outdoors.

At first I thought it was age. I’ve always been fit, but I’m also in my early 60’s now and so I attributed some of the changes simply to getting older.  We have to be realistic, right? But then came the alarming shortness of breath from walking a short flight of stairs on our home, heaviness in my chest, and lots of mucus and inflammation that I had never had before. I was referred to a specialist in Comox and the diagnosis was confirmed—asthma ‘triggered by woodsmoke’.

In short, four years of exposure to the unhealthy AQ here in Courtenay and the valley changed how my lungs and my entire respiratory system function.

In short, four years of exposure to the unhealthy AQ here in Courtenay and the valley changed how my lungs and my entire respiratory system function. As well, these changes have left me vulnerable to future respiratory problems, stroke, and COPD.

I now have to check the PM2.5 readings before I go anywhere or do anything physical outdoors here in Courtenay. For example, I very seldom go downtown to browse and shop anymore because that part of town is one of the worst. When the PM2.5 spikes or remains high, as it often does, I have to use an inhaler or flee – literally get out of the Comox Valley.

To add further proof to the issue of the unhealthy impacts of Comox Valley air, whenever we go away to the Lower Mainland, Victoria, or to Palm Desert as we did for 3.5 months this year, my asthma symptoms completely disappear. I can walk and exercise strenuously for 2 hours or more without any symptoms or shortness of breath, even in the heat. My heart rate slows, the heavy, itchy weight of inflammation in my chest disappears, and my lungs fill naturally.

Within eight days of returning to Courtenay this March of 2018, and promptly experiencing PM2.5 peaks of 71, 53 and various evenings of 36, 45, 33 and so forth, my asthma symptoms returned and I have a cough and that terrible, itchy weight in my chest.

Breathing Isn’t Optional and No One is Immune to the Health Impacts of PM2.5

So is the air we breathe in the Comox Valley unhealthy?  Absolutely – and not simply for individuals with a current or recent diagnosis.

People, like myself, who are clearly troubled by the immediate impacts of unhealthy air, and even moderate levels of PM2.5, are simply the canaries in the coal mine.  Breathing isn’t optional for anyone and we do it often.  NO ONE is immune to the negative impacts of poor air quality and prolonged exposure to fine particulate matter from wood smoke.

Unfortunately, some residents, like my husband and a number of friends, can’t even smell the smoke at lower PM2.5 levels. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t being affected by it – they are!

For people with a higher ’tolerance’ for poor air quality and low sensitivity to the smell of wood smoke or PM2.5, it simply means that the negative health impacts will only be revealed after longer exposure.  Sadly for those folks, that also means that their prolonged exposure to wood smoke will likely be expressed in a different, even more serious way.  Instead of asthma, too many residents will suffer heart problems, stroke, COPD, early onset dementia, strange bouts of pneumonia, and even cancer.

All of these conditions are linked to high levels of PM2.5 and long-term exposure. Why? Well, because breathing isn’t optional and we do it often.

Progress Stalled Due to Lack of Leadership

Progress, in terms of public awareness and education, has been made on the issue of air quality here in the Comox Valley. But given all that we now know about the costly health impacts of wood smoke and PM2.5, change needs to happen more quickly.  Lives and the health of current residents depend on it.

The health problems related to wood smoke exposure are completely preventable.  The related health care costs are unnecessary.

The health problems related to wood smoke exposure are completely preventable.  The related health care costs are unnecessary.  So why do we allow a minority of CV residents to continue to engage in outdated wood burning practices and stubborn habits that no longer have a place in the populated Comox Valley where smoke often remains trapped for days on end?

Our air quality problems persist largely because there is a frightening lack of leadership at both the municipal and regional level in the Comox Valley. I’ve attended meetings and presentations on air quality in the past and must say it’s downright scary to observe the behaviour, tactics, and even apathy of our politicians.

Most Comox Valley politicians willfully remain blind to the air quality problems here, they make preposterous excuses for it’s existence, create unnecessary delays and distractions, and pose questions that clearly illustrate a lack of understanding. This all plays out while they continue to allow a minority of residents – including themselves – to burn wood for meagre savings, warmth and ambiance—all of which can be achieved in other, more progressive and healthy ways.

For these reasons, I firmly believe that the provincial government and its local representatives on the air quality issue need to take more assertive action and further measures to reduce and control current pollutants such as woodsmoke in the Comox Valley.

Enough time has passed to get a sense of what is possible and necessary.  A good deal of credible data and solid research is now available also, and the writing is on the wall:  Without more direct intervention by the provincial government to protect Comox Valley residents from the health impacts of woodsmoke, nothing of significance is going to happen at the municipal or regional level.

<– Back to personal stories