The Yukon government says it is going to continue using air monitoring stations like this one in Hidden Valley. A study released this week found that in the winter some Whitehorse neighbourhoods fail to meet air quality standards. (Submitted/Yukon government)

Wood smoke in Whitehorse neighbourhoods could pose health risk, officials say

‘It’s enough to say yeah, there’s a risk and we need to do something about it’

A first-of-its-kind study released earlier this week is warning about the winter air quality in four Whitehorse neighbourhoods.

The study measured the amount of fine particles in the air in nine locations over 16 months from 2015 to 2017.

It found that four neighbourhoods — Kopper King, Hidden Valley, Takhini Trailer Park and Riverdale — had high enough levels of fine particles in the air in the winter to warrant the government stepping in.

Janine Kostelnik, an environmental protection analyst with Environment Yukon, said that while those particles could come from dust or vehicle emissions, officials believe the Yukon’s high levels are primarily due to wood smoke.

Yukoners might enjoy the smell of wood fire heaters in the winter, but Kostelnik said they need to know “that smelling that isn’t nessicarily a good thing for your health because it does get into your lungs and has the potential to cause health problems.”

According to national and Yukon standards the average amount of fine particulate matter in the air should not be more than 10 micrograms per cu. m. Data collected during the Yukon study shows that the Kopper King site slightly exceeded this threshold at approximately 10.25 micrograms per cu. m.

When neighbourhoods exceed 6.4 micrograms it is recommended that governments step in to stop further deterioration of air quality. Hidden Valley, Takhini Trailer Park and Riverdale all exceeded that level.

Kostelnik called the Yukon results an “indicator” that there might be a problem in those areas though she pointed out that national standards are normally based on three years worth of data.

“We always had thought that there was a problem but we couldn’t really do anything without some sort of science around it,” she said.

She said the neighbourhoods where higher levels were found are in valleys which makes it difficult for the particles to dissipate and are often subject to an inversion which can trap the particles over the neighbourhood.

Dr. Brendan Hanley, the Yukon’s chief medical officer of health, said that while pollution in the air can irritate anyone, children and the elderly as well as those with respiratory or cardiac problems can be particularly at risk. Hanley said particles in the air from smoke can make people short of breath.

Data from other jurisdictions shows an association between higher level of air pollution and a risk of heart attack, he said.

“It’s enough to say yeah, there’s a risk and we need to do something about it.”

The plan is to continue using the monitoring stations until at least 2020 though a few of the locations have been adjusted, Kostelnik said. That will give the territory enough data to officially compare its numbers to the national standards.

“Last winter was a relatively warm winter and that’s why they want to average it out.”

The government will also be installing a monitoring station in Dawson City and has a mobile station that the Department of Community Services will be using to monitor the air in the event of any major forest fire in the communities.

Hanley said there has been talk of possibly using the data to allow him to issue warnings if the air quality is poor.

“I think the message would be more about ‘make sure that you’re burning effectively,’ he said.

“It could also say that, if you have a secondary source (of heat), maybe during these couple of days consider not using your wood heat but use your primary source or your alternate source of heat.”

Between late July and early August officials will be hosting multiple open houses to raise awareness about proper burning techniques and the importance of a well-maintained stove. Dates for the open houses have not been set.

The government also plans to launch a public survey around that time to get a better sense of Yukoners’ habits when it comes to burning wood, Koselnik said.

Contact Ashley Joannou at ashleyj@yukon-news.com

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