Michael Brauer is a professor at the University of British Columbia’s School of Population and Public Health. Christopher Carlsten is a professor at the University of British Columbia’s Division of Respiratory Medicine. Sarah Henderson is a senior scientist at the British Columbia Centre for Disease Control and an associate professor at the University of British Columbia’s School of Population and Public Health.
With the COVID-19 pandemic sparking concerns about the capacity of hospitals and health-care systems, there has rightly been an increased emphasis on what the average person can do: physical distancing and handwashing.
But there’s more we can do to lessen the load on our health-care system, both during this crisis and beyond. And some of those secondary actions including keeping our air as clean as possible.
SARS-CoV-2 – the virus that causes the COVID-19 disease – acts principally by infecting the respiratory tract, and we know that the gases and particles in polluted air can worsen the effects of such infections. In 2003, elevated air-pollution exposure doubled the risk of death in those who had the SARS coronavirus. Such viruses also damage our natural defense systems: our lungs, the protective cells and fluid lining our airways, and the specialized proteins that fight against invading organisms. Every year, air pollution is responsible for more than 400,000 deaths from pneumonia around the world, and for 1,600 in British Columbia specifically, at a cost of $11.5-billion, through impacts on heart and lung disease.
Certainly, there has been reduced vehicular traffic and economic activity due to physical distancing. But that doesn’t mean all drivers of pollution have been eliminated. In British Columbia, other major sources include open burning of agricultural and forestry waste, as well as residential wood heating and road dust. The wildfire season is also quickly approaching, bringing with it the potential for severe smoke. And in the past week alone, elevated levels of health-damaging particle air pollution have been measured on Vancouver Island and in Metro Vancouver with authorities poised to issue air-quality advisories. In our interior communities, spring has already brought about multiple air-quality advisories, prompted by the dust that’s unleashed when the snow melts and winter traction materials dry up.
As we expand our approach to mitigating this crisis as part of the wider project of flattening the curve and lessening the strain on our system, we need to do all that we can to reduce the likelihood that mild cases become severe and require hospitalization. This is highly relevant for the roughly 800,000 British Columbians currently living with chronic lung disease who are at increased risk for complications from COVID-19, but also for the pursuit of improved health for all of us, as we don’t yet know who will be more seriously affected by the virus.
Fortunately, actions can be taken quickly and at relatively little cost or inconvenience. First, until the pandemic is over, using fireplaces in our homes should be banned when they’re not needed as a primary heating source. Second, municipalities should take action to clean the streets and reduce the potential for further road dust events. Third, the open burning of debris should be halted in locations close to population centers, at least temporarily. We applaud the B.C. Ministry of Environment and Climate Change for taking strong action this week by implementing open-burning restrictions for parts of the province.
Finally, British Columbians should start preparing for wildfire smoke events to ensure that we are ready if the pandemic lasts into the fire season. This means those with pre-existing heart and lung disease should ensure that they have adequate supplies of medication and should consider purchasing air purifiers and filters. It would also be reasonable for governments to consider proactive fire bans to further reduce the likelihood of wildfires this year.
We may have physically distanced ourselves, but we are all breathing the same air. Let’s do everything we can to keep that collective resource – and our collective health – free of pollution.
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