Poor Air Quality and Asthma: Part 1

Here in Manitoba, we are fortunate to enjoy good air quality most of the year. Winnipeg, as a “small big city”, doesn’t suffer the effects of smog from vehicle emissions many of our larger counterparts do. Our energy is derived from clean sources—97% of energy production on the power grid is from hydroelectric generating stations 1, leaving me to infer the other 3% from wind and, with the last coal power station decommissioned and available only for emergency use. These things lead to generally wonderful air quality, for all but brief periods of the year.

Forest fires and air quality

Each Summer, forest fires caused either by lightning or humans spark in regions near and far—a few years ago, those fires got near enough to a family cabin that sprinklers were installed on the cottages to prevent damage where possible. This year, those fires are farther away from me, burning in Alberta, British Columbia, and those most notably on the West Coast of the US, in California. Despite their distance, forest fire smoke can negatively affect air quality as it travels great distances.

In Canada, Environment and Climate Change Canada measures and reports air quality using not the Air Quality Index (AQI) as the US does, but the Air Quality Health Index (AQHI). These scales are especially useful to those of us with asthma or other lung diseases and health conditions impacted by air quality. We use a scale of 1 to 10+, with lower numbers being better—when numbers reach 4 or above, they indicate a moderate or high health risk, especially for those with lung or heart disease. 3(To learn more about the AQHI and its role in health decision making for people with asthma, you can check out page 14 and 15 of the exercise guide I wrote for Asthma Canada which includes a segment on AQHI and outdoor exercise.)

Dealing with poor air quality

Not only am I used to clean air, having asthma, I’m part of an at-risk or sensitive population to air quality changes. On a Friday in August, it was 36*C with humidity and our AQHI hit a 5, but I had plans to go out with friends for an evening of cultural celebration at Folklorama. I wasn’t going to not go, so I had to figure out how to make it work.
While my weather app notes research advising against wearing a mask (a subject for another day!), I threw my Vogmask in my bag along with an extra rescue inhaler, my Atrovent inhaler, and my spacer, as opposed to my usual just throwing a rescue inhaler in my pocket and heading out. My friend and I took it slow walking to the bus, where I already was feeling short of breath from the impact of the heat, humidity and poor air quality! With no reprieve at our connection, someone, of course, decided to light up a cigarette and as the smoke blew toward me, I decided to give my Vogmask a try, and I felt it helped but would only be useful if I were standing still and not during activity due to the resistance it causes when breathing—I removed it as the bus arrived.
I was later reminded it would have been a good idea to pre-medicate before leaving home—certainly, this is true, but as a rookie of poor air quality it hadn’t occurred to me!

I didn’t have much issue out on Friday night, but Saturday was a whole other story. I woke up with a pretty bad headache and my lungs felt the worst they have in a long while. When two puffs of my inhaler lasted me less than two hours, I took a nebulizer treatment, which I only do when I’m feeling really cruddy! I stayed inside the rest of the day—it’s Sunday as I write this, and I plan to stay mostly inside until Tuesday when temperatures are supposed to drop (I plan to fully embrace this and go for waffles outside).

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