If I had known…

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by Clive Powsey, Cumberland, April 2017

I moved to Cumberland 12 years ago and the very first winter I noticed a deterioration in my respiratory health; it continued from year to year.

After about four years living here I started getting asthma, and each year it got worse. I have had pneumonia numerous times and coughed so badly once I gave myself a hernia which I had to have repaired. (I don’t ever remember living in a place where so many people of any age get pneumonia. I’ve never been troubled with it prior to moving here).

Last year (2015-16) was the worst year of respiratory health since moving here. I used puffers all winter, had six respiratory infections (two of which required antibiotics) and went to the walk-in clinic a number of times due to severe coughing and trouble breathing.

On visiting my doctor, she told me that “if I didn’t look after my lungs I was at risk for COPD.”

On visiting my doctor, she told me that “if I didn’t look after my lungs I was at risk for COPD [Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease].” She was completely oblivious to the issue of air quality; like many, she believed we live in a fresh air paradise.

Worst of all I had an episode of seeing double. I had trouble walking and had to be taken by ambulance to emergency where I had CAT scans and other tests as it was suspected I had a stroke. However, the CAT scan showed my sinuses were swollen which can cause double vision.

Learning about the issue

Last winter I contacted Island Health to enquire about our air quality and was told that the data showed the Comox Valley had a known problem. Online I found ground level studies from about six years ago, air zone reports, and hourly monitoring data from the Courtenay Elementary school.

The ground level mobile monitoring study done by the University of Victoria indicated that the worst areas for fine particulate pollution is mostly in older residential areas in Cumberland, Courtenay, and Comox, as well as some clusters outside of towns. Recently, more extensive mobile monitoring reinforced that finding.

Taking steps to improve household air quality

Last fall, we bought a fairly expensive stand alone HEPA air filter and have been running it 24/7. As well, we started turning off the Heat Recovery Ventilation system in our fairly new, air tight home (designed to vent moisture and bring in ‘fresh’ air, it was actually polluting our home).

The contrast between this winter and last winter could not be more marked. This winter I have used no steroid puffers for sinus’s or lungs, no Ventolin either. I had two colds which dissipated within five days, and I had a full winter of vigorous activity cross country skiing, something I have missed for several years. For most of the day, I am finally breathing air that is not polluted with smoke.

I am fortunate to be able to buy the air purifier, several hundred dollars worth of filters annually, and the electricity to operate it.

Changes needed

The winter air quality here is still bad, although this year was better than previous years due to relentless storm systems blowing in to dissipate smoke. In Cumberland, the mayor and council have been open to the fact we have an air quality problem and concerned enough to have banned backyard burning all year. Other valley municipalities seem to be in denial.

 I would not advise raising a family here, retiring here or moving here for a healthy, active lifestyle

Although things are better, looking back on the last half dozen truly dreadful winters I have to say if I had known what the air quality was actually like beforehand, I never would have moved here (none of the scientific data and information currently available was available at the time I moved here).

Until actual improvements in air quality make our winter air as good as Vancouver or Toronto’s winter air, I would not advise raising a family here, retiring here or moving here for a healthy, active lifestyle unless you can find a place to live set back from where the local air sheds/atmospheric commons are used to dump the products of dirty combustion.

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