March 3, 2023 / Abby Roberts

Adapting to a Hotter, Smokier Environment in the Pacific Northwest

“Up here in British Columbia,” said Mona Shum, MSc, CIH, “we’ve been experiencing very hot summers. Our forests are burning at a rate that’s really increased exponentially over the past five or so years.” And with hotter summers and more active wildfire seasons, residents of British Columbia and other regions of the Pacific Northwest are exposed to rising levels of a specific health hazard. Wildfire smoke, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, may cause a range of health effects, such as irritating the eyes and respiratory system and worsening chronic heart and lung conditions.

Shum, the principal industrial hygienist at Aura Health and Safety Corp., has worked previously with wildland firefighters. This expertise led her career to take a surprising turn when a local film studio reached out. British Columbia is one of North America’s major hubs for film and TV show production, with Vancouver, the province’s largest city, having earned the nickname “Hollywood North.” Many productions also take advantage of BC’s picturesque natural scenery. “We became involved with the film industry because they often film outside of the metropolitan area, in remote, forested areas,” Shum explained. “So, we were asked to help one particular studio put together a wildfire smoke plan.”

On the other side of the border with the United States, Michael Cooper, MS, MPH, CIH, also has a focus on protecting people from the effects of wildfire smoke. “My efforts with long-term care facilities really started with COVID-19 to improve indoor air quality in those settings,” said Cooper, a principal at Cooper Consulting Group LLC. “Due to wildfires in California, Washington, and Oregon,” Cooper continued, “they have a lot of wildfire smoke that comes from the west and impacts facilities in Idaho.” When the long-term care facilities approached him with their concerns about wildfire smoke, he worked with the facilities and researchers from Boise State University to assess their heating, ventilation, and air conditioning systems to address the hazard.

Although wildfires have been a fact of life in the Pacific Northwest for centuries, large fires that burn longer and threaten more communities are likely to become more common. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reports that longer, more active fire seasons are a consequence of climate change, as warmer temperatures create dryer conditions throughout western North America. The 2020–2022 wildfire seasons all far surpassed the yearly average of 1.2 million acres burned. While first responders battle the flames, occupational and environmental health and safety professionals must address the ensuing occupational health concerns. In line with the OEHS profession’s need to prepare for the effects of climate change, discussed in the Feb. 7 blog post, Shum and Cooper aim to increase awareness of the profession’s critical role in a hotter, smokier world.

Wildfire Smoke and Film Productions

Both Shum and Cooper encountered challenges due to the fact that neither were working in the kinds of facilities where IH is traditionally practiced. In Shum’s case, implementing controls on film sets is complicated by the fact that productions typically employ a huge range of professions, trades, and specializations to work in unusual or remote environments. “A lot of studios film in warehouses, so they don’t have proper ventilation,” she said. “Oftentimes they open the bay doors during turnarounds and breaks, but it’s not really conditioned air that comes in, and you get a lot of smoke.” She explained that some productions bring in portable air conditioning units to control the heat or air filtering units to control particulate, but they may not know how to use them, and the noise produced by the units means they can’t be used during filming.

While film productions typically hire many safety staff members, they don’t often include IHs on their teams. Therefore, productions generally require assistance from IH consultants like Shum and her colleagues to handle all occupational health issues, as well as to meet health and safety regulations; Shum’s work with productions originally dealt with on-set artificial fog and smoke effects until wildfire smoke and heat stress became greater priorities. “We deal with all the exposure and ventilation assessments,” she said, “and try to provide them with some tools to figure out how to do things properly, safely, with proper ventilation.”

Shum assists productions in developing and implementing exposure control plans, as required under BC health and safety regulations for any hazard that may be present in levels above the designated action limit or that should be limited to ”as low as reasonably achievable,” or ALARA levels, which can include components in wildfire smoke. Under these plans, production staff learn to collect measurements for airborne particulate matter and then refer to applicable BC public health guidelines. The BC government constantly updates an Air Quality Health Index that reports the risk level posed by air quality issues for fourteen communities across the province, and when wildfire smoke is especially heavy, a Smoky Skies Bulletin is issued to affected communities. In these conditions, the BC government’s website asks organizations to consider postponing outdoor events or moving them indoors until the smoke has cleared. So, according to Shum, film production staff “can measure particulate matter on set in remote locations and compare their measurements to those guidelines to make decisions about the level of risk and whether they need to put in extra controls or just stop filming outdoors.”

Similarly, controlling for heat illness and injury involved empowering film productions to make safer decisions. Shum is helping create a digital phone app that combines heat and humidity measurements with questions about the intensity of work being performed by the user and their clothing or equipment to produce a Humidex rating and relevant guidance by WorkSafeBC, the province’s occupational health regulator. “If you’re in the extreme Humidex rating,” she said, “it might say, based on the guidelines, you have to rest every 15 minutes, and you need to drink cool water. It’ll give you what’s in our WorkSafeBC guidelines.”

Smoke and Long-Term Care Facilities

Meanwhile, Cooper found that indoor air quality controls for long-term care facilities must account for both staff and residents. “There’s a small bit of occupational exposure that the nursing staff experiences,” he said, “but most of the concern is from the residents who are there, mostly indoors, for lengthy periods of time, and most of them have compromised immune systems and respiratory systems.” CDC lists older adults as one of the groups of people more likely to experience adverse health effects with exposure to wildfire smoke.

Similar to Shum, Cooper’s assistance involved monitoring air quality data and assisting facilities with implementing controls, often in the form of modifications to the facility’s heating, ventilation, and air conditioning systems. One challenge Cooper encountered was the mismatch between adjusting controls for wildfire smoke and controls for hazards like COVID-19. For example, increasing HVAC air intake to help minimize or dilute COVID-19 contamination would be problematic during a wildfire smoke event since this would allow increased amounts of particulate to enter the building.

Cooper also advised facilities when to implement their air quality control plans based on data provided by monitoring at the facilities. It is important for facilities to “have developed an indoor air quality plan and trained maintenance employees on the plan,” Cooper explained. “During a COVID-19 outbreak or wildfire smoke event, someone needs to take appropriate action, which is based on the facility and what it can do to improve indoor air quality. When wildfire smoke events occur, that’s not the time to go purchase HEPA filters for the facility because they may not be available in time.”

The ability to control indoor air quality in some long-term care facilities may be limited by older, outdated HVAC systems. According to Cooper, facilities often install HVAC systems and then defer maintenance until the systems default or stop working. Wildfire smoke plans for long-term care facilities must recognize that traditional approaches to protecting workers from particulates may not be appropriate. Residents may not be able to wear respiratory protection, making improved air quality dependent on engineering and administrative controls. Finally, long-term care facilities must plan to communicate information about how they will manage indoor air quality issues to residents’ loved ones and be prepared to answer questions. “Thinking through these items beforehand and having a strategy for how to implement them helps the administration of these facilities be able to communicate that better to their affected populations,” he said.

Preparing for a Smokier World

Although the adverse health effects from wildfire smoke are becoming better understood, the risks to vulnerable and sensitive populations cannot easily be eliminated. The hazard itself is not new, but changes in the environment mean that it’s likely to become a more widespread hazard. “We hope these wildfire smoke events diminish with time,” said Cooper, “but the data don’t seem to indicate that. The data show that we’re seeing larger fires and wind directions are pushing them into more urban areas.”

Shum agreed, citing the challenges of the 2021 wildfire season. When fires in BC were finally brought under control, residents were then affected by smoke from fires in California and Washington. “The smoke, unfortunately, knows no borders, just like every other contaminant,” she said. “I think it’s going to just get worse. We’ve been dealing with it every summer, pretty much, and the fire season is not shortening.”

However, they assert that this is a hazard that IHs can address using their skillsets, even in unusual or unfamiliar environments, by thinking outside of the box, planning ahead, staying informed, and communicating with colleagues across scientific disciplines and jurisdictions. “It is important to stay current on the effects of wildfire smoke and the literature that’s defining better mitigation strategies,” Cooper stated. “Wildfire smoke is an emerging issue, and like any emerging issue, you want to stay on top of it and apply the best practices to improve indoor air quality for your facility or client.”

“I don’t think that the problem has been solved at this point,” he continued, “but there certainly are some better approaches that can be taken, especially in planning, room air purification, maintenance staff awareness training, HVAC improvements and maintenance, and phone apps for tracking local air quality status.”

Shum also stressed the importance of finding practical solutions. “How do you retrofit what you have?” she asked. “How do you make it better than it is right now? It might not be ideal, but it’s better. That’s what we’re aiming for.”

Mona Shum and Michael Cooper will be delivering an AIHce EXP educational session, “I3: A New Normal of Hot and Smoky,” on Tuesday, May 23, 2023, from 3:15 to 4:15 p.m., Mountain time. AIHce EXP 2023 will be held May 22–24 both virtually and onsite at Phoenix Convention Center in Phoenix, Arizona. To view the program or to register, visit the conference website.

Abby Roberts

Abby Roberts is the editorial assistant for The Synergist.


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