How to reduce your exposure

Everyone has to breathe.

This means everyone's health can be impacted by fine particulate matter (PM2.5) in our air (see Health Impacts for more information).

And children, seniors and those with pre-existing conditions are the most vulnerable to air pollution. This is about 40% of the population.

While we can't avoid breathing, and can't boil our air when it gets bad, there are ways to try and minimize the impact of wood smoke.

Improving indoor air quality

Staying inside will reduce your exposure to fine particulate pollution.

However, studies have shown that 50-70% of the fine particulates found outside will get inside a house. So harm can be reduced, but not eliminated, by staying indoors.

Air purifiers

You can help improve your home's air quality, by buying and running air purifiers.

Any HEPA-rated filter will take out many (but not all) of the fine particulates inside your house. Be sure to get the right size for filtering the size of the rooms you have, and to replace the filters at least once a year.

Depending on your heating or ventilation system, you may be able to install air filters in your system. Talk to a professional about this option.

Mechanical ventilation

In some homes, the only mechanical ventilation is a manual fan over a cooking range and a bathroom fan. When these fans run, they send air outside, which means they have to draw air in from other cracks or vents.

In more modern homes, the ventilation system is automatic and continually pulls "fresh" air into the house. Although mechanical ventilation is intended to improve your indoor air quality, you might want to turn it off during times of bad air quality. If you live where wood smoke pollution is constant, you might want to keep it off, at least in the evenings which are usually worse. If you do, you might need to buy a dehumidifier to take excess moisture out of the air.

We recommend you talk to a professional about the risks to your health if you are thinking about not using your mechanical ventilation at times, or to see if you can get inline filters for your system. Indoor air quality is also negatively affected by things like cooking and cleaning so you need to be aware of the pros and cons of using your ventilation system.

Face Masks

While face masks might reduce your exposure, they are not always recommended by medical people. Avoiding polluted air is the better option!

For one, masks may not fit well. People with facial hair, for example, have a hard time getting a good seal so polluted air gets in around the edges. So you might think you are being protected when you aren't.

If you do use one, be sure it is rated as N95 or N99. This means it will filter out either 95% or 99% of the fine particulates in the air. Do not use the surgical masks you might see on TV!

Make sure the mask fits tightly around your nose and cheeks and has a good seal. As these masks are harder to breathe in, it is harder to exercise in them so be cautious.

Air Quality Health Index

The Air Quality Health Index (AQHI) provides hourly air quality readings and related health messages.

The current AQHI for the Comox Valley is based on hourly readings at the monitor at Courtenay Elementary. It helps communicate the real time risk for people, and suggests how people might change their activities based on the outdoor air quality.

The AQHI has recently been amended (in BC only*) to better reflect the risk caused by smoke. High levels of fine particulate readings now trigger more appropriate high health risk warnings on the AQHI,

It is important for people to remember that there is "no safe level of exposure" according to our Medical Health Officer. We believe the AQHI risk messages are still too weak and do not adequately reflect possible risks.

Also, while the AQHI forecasts have gotten better in BC, they are seldom accurate. We recommend only using the 'current' setting to guide your activities. Also, some areas of the valley will be better or worse than where the monitor is located so take that into consideration when planning your activities.

Download the AQHI app

People can download an app for their smart phone, set up the community you want to monitor, and set alerts for when the AQHI in your area reaches a specified number.

The app was created by the Government of Alberta, but many communities across Canada can use it.

*Note: The AQHI has only been improved in BC.  AQHI readings in other provinces and territories continue to underplay the role of PM2.5. In fact, the AQHI can be very misleading in smoke-impacted communities outside BC and might lead vulnerable people to think things are okay when they are not.