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Wildfire smoke spotlights need for better indoor air quality, experts say – National

Experts say the smoke from wildfires that has billowed communities across Canada in recent months has highlighted the need for better ventilation in buildings used by the public, prompting the establishment of strong indoor air quality standards.

Health concerns about wildfire smoke came to the fore this week after a 9-year-old boy died in British Columbia from asthma exacerbated by wildfire smoke.

Experts say current air quality recommendations for public spaces are not sufficient to prevent indoor circulation of small particulate matter, including pollutants in smoke.

With wildfires expected to increase in the next few years, with some estimates to increase by 25 percent by 2030, it is of utmost importance to think about ways to make indoor air safer to breathe, experts say.

“Particulate matter in the air, or smoke, is one of them, and it is the most harmful pollutant and the most damaging to public health,” said Joey Fox, HVAC engineer and chair of the Indoor Air Quality Advisory Group of the Ontario Professional Engineers Association.

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Air quality regulations vary by federal and state jurisdiction, but none mandate the use of high-efficiency particulate air filters, HEPA filters, or filters with a minimum reported efficiency of 13 or higher, known as MERV-13.

Click to play video: 'The Health Effects of Wildfire Smoke'

Health effects of wildfire smoke

While many organizations are choosing to improve their ventilation systems, Fox believes quality filters should be a requirement, not a suggestion.

“Buildings are making us sick,” he said. “Having filters that help protect people is something we really need to work on going forward.”

According to the Canadian Center for Occupational Safety and Health, studies have shown that poor indoor air quality in office buildings and schools is associated with increased health problems, absenteeism, lower productivity and strained employee-employer relationships.

Health Canada recommends, but is not legally required, that public buildings and institutions install mechanical HVAC systems that can be equipped with MERV-13 or better filters to remove particulate matter.

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School districts across Canada have invested in improving air quality in classrooms to prevent infectious diseases, especially since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, but standards and recommendations vary.

In Ontario, the school board is “expected” to use MERV-13 filters in schools with mechanical ventilation.

Click to play video: 'Coroner's office investigating death of 9-year-old'

Coroner’s office investigating death of 9-year-old

British Columbia recommends school districts “regularly maintain their HVAC systems” and open windows when possible. The state said it spent $2.5 million to install 1,914 stand-alone filtration HEPA units in classrooms without mechanical ventilation.

It’s time to move beyond indoor air quality suggestions, says Stephane Bilodeau, an expert in indoor ventilation and a lecturer in the Department of Biotechnology at McGill University.

“There should be more than just recommendations because it affects not only people but also society,” Bilodeau said.

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“If the health of large numbers of people is left unchecked, it will undoubtedly affect the healthcare system in some way in the future.”

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Effects of wildfire smoke on summer day camps

Most Canadian building codes use what is known as ASHRAE Standard 62.1 to quantify human acceptable levels of ventilation and indoor air quality.

The standard recommends a minimum level of filtration for MERV-8, which is effective at keeping out dust and some air pollution but not enough to keep out extreme pollutants such as wildfire smoke, experts say.

“Canada’s new building standards still rely on filtration that is not high-efficiency filtration … and that’s where the problem lies,” Bilodeau said.

Jeffrey Siegel, a professor of civil engineering at the University of Toronto, said there was a lack of messages from public health officials about the benefits of improving air quality.

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“For most Canadians, the air we breathe indoors is a major environmental health risk,” he says.

“Improving indoor air quality can lead to better health outcomes, but we are failing to deliver that message.”

© 2023 Canadian Press

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