Vancouver currently has some of the worst air quality out of the world’s major cities

Vancouver has some of the worst-rated air quality out of the world’s major cities due to smoke from wildfires that have been ravaging the west coast of the United States.

According to IQAir, a global air-quality information platform, Vancouver is second only to Portland, Oregon for the world’s worst air quality and pollution levels. IQAir uses the US Environmental Protection Agency’s Air Quality Index (AQI) to form its rankings.

The index is based on five major pollutants, including particle pollution, and increases relative to the severity of health impacts from the air quality.

Of the world's major cities, Vancouver currently has the second-highest AQI.
Of the world's major cities, Vancouver currently has the second-highest AQI. Screenshot IQAir

At the time of writing, the ten Canadian cities with the highest AQI indexes are all located in BC. Of those 10, 7 have an AQI rating of above 200, or are at levels that are ‘very unhealthy.’

Screenshot IQAir

On September 8, Environment Canada released public weather alerts for nearly every location in British Columbia as smoke from wildfires in California, Oregon and Washington have blown northward in recent days.

“Wildfire smoke … is forecast to impact air quality through the weekend as a large mass of smoke move[s] through,” reads the advisory for Metro Vancouver.

The advisory specifically highlights the presence of fine particulate matter, or PM2.5 — small airborne particles that wildfire smoke, along with gasses, is composed of. When inhaled, they can cause irritation of the eyes, nose and throat, and inflammation.

While the cotton and surgical face masks worn by much of the province in response to the COVID-19 pandemic can block the aerosols that carry the coronavirus, they don’t protect against PM2.5. The tighter-fitting N95 respirators can filter out these particles if worn properly, but using them isn’t advised while stock is in short supply and they need to be reserved for health care professionals and front-line workers.

Instead, folks are advised to stay indoors with the windows shut and if possible, in clean air.

Environment Canada’s Air Quality Health Index, which is calculated using the presence of air pollutants and describes the health risk related to each level, has values that range from 1–10+. At the time of writing, Metro Vancouver’s observed conditions are rated at 10+, or very high risk.

At this risk level, Environment Canada recommends that at-risk individuals avoid physically demanding activities outdoors, and that the general population reduce outdoor activities and monitor for symptoms including coughing and throat irritation. At-risk individuals include young children, seniors and people with respiratory or cardiovascular conditions such as COVID-19.

During an air quality advisory, you can reduce your personal health risk by:

  • Staying cool and drinking lots of water,
  • Limiting your outdoor and strenuous physical activities,
  • Keeping your windows and doors closed at home and in your vehicle,
  • Using a high-quality air filter
  • And checking in on your neighbours and loved ones who are more vulnerable to smoke, while respecting physical distancing guidelines.

An alert from Metro Vancouver released this morning stated that people may seek refuge from wildfire smoke in public indoor spaces, but physical distancing guidelines in place due to COVID-19 must be adhered to.

Information from the BC Centre for Disease Control has previously stated that reduced air quality may lead to more severe cases of COVID-19 and more COVID-19 infections overall due to reduced immune function of the respiratory system.

“If you are experiencing symptoms such as chest discomfort, shortness of breath, coughing or wheezing, seek prompt medical attention,” reads the statement from Metro Vancouver.

Air quality is forecasted to improve Monday. However, because of the ever-changing patterns of winds, temperatures and wildfire behaviours, air-quality conditions can change quickly.