Michael Mehta, a professor who teaches geography and environmental studies at Thompson Rivers University, holds a PurpleAir sensor. These sensors detect smoke and air pollution in communities.  PHOTO COURTESY OF MICHAEL MEHTA

About 15 years ago, Michael Mehta and his wife bought a piece of land on Gabriola Island, one of the Gulf Islands, close to Nanaimo, B.C. Hoping to turn it into a retirement home, they built their house across the street from the ocean. 

“It was a very sustainable house with solar panels and electric car charging station and had all kinds of amazing features,” Mehta recalls.

Mehta, a professor of geography and environmental studies at Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops, is also an environmental social scientist and soon learned that his island neighbours burned a lot of wood for heat. 

“We quickly realized right then and there that there’s still a very deep culture of woodburning in that community from woodstove fireplaces. I called it ultimately a ‘combustion culture,’” he says.

“I was shocked to see that our air pollution is worse than a lot of the worst days in Beijing or Delhi or anywhere like that, that has chronic air pollution.” 

Michael Mehta

Wood-burning stoves and fireplaces contribute to climate change. Alongside the added amount of carbon dioxide that is being pumped into the atmosphere, mass amounts of these harmful chemicals can cause detrimental health problems in humans. Through Mehta’s research working with nonprofits and introducing technologies in communities, there is hope to purify the air and educate others on the severity of rising carbon dioxide levels.

Mehta says that wood-burning stoves contribute to air pollution and harm humans in many ways.

“Wood smoke is assessed as the number one environmental health hazard. It affects people throughout their life course,” he says. “And it’s clear that exposure obviously affects those who are more vulnerable, including those that are older and have immune-compromised situations.”

After personally dealing with the effects of air pollution on Gabriola Island, Mehta began to educate and increase awareness to the people on the island about this issue. 

“I was shocked to see that our air pollution is worse than a lot of the worst days in Beijing or Delhi or anywhere like that, that has chronic air pollution.” 

As a result, Mehta took an assertive approach to alert people of the potential dangers. 

“From there it just grew, expanding the network, starting to develop some non-profits and lobbied very hard for increasing awareness and restrictions on exposure to air pollution.” 

Dangers of woodburning air pollution

So, what’s the big deal? As Mehta says, woodstoves contribute to changes in the air quality which contain harmful chemicals, thus, posing a threat to ecosystems. 

“With wildfires, we know that the ash itself contains a lot of heavy metals, chromium, cadmium, you name it. And a lot of that ash, of course, gets into ecosystems, it gets into the water bodies, creates toxicity through the system, if you look at the food chain, those are impaired. And we also know that a lot of mammals, large organisms that are displaced by wildfires in the air pollution, as well. They are really surviving and end up moving into cities.”

As air pollution continues to exacerbate living conditions, the human body cannot adapt to these changes. 

“There are thousands of studies showing health effects, from heart disease, to diabetes, to eye problems to hearing loss to a wide range of inflammatory responses, cancers, of course, asthma, COPD, there are dozens of things that are connected with this,” says Mehta.

“Because really what happens when you’re inhaling this, you’re taking in fine particles and gasses that contain on the surface of the particles, hundreds of very toxic chemicals, including some of the most carcinogenic ones, the benzene classes. All kinds of things, including heavy metals, are attached to the gas into the tiny particles. They’re getting right into your bloodstream; they’re moving right into your brain.” 

Wood burning stove inside homes that contribute to air. PHOTO: PIXABAY

Jagbir Jassal, a Calgarian who suffers from asthma, says that poor air quality has caused him to make lifestyle changes and forced him to go on medication.

“It was one of the forest fires in B.C. and their air quality was really bad. I couldn’t go outside at all for a couple of days. And even when I did, I had to go to the hospital because I couldn’t breathe because the air quality was so bad… I’ll have to increase the dosage of my asthmatic medications. And sometimes they’ll also restrain me from doing other activities, like being outside or running, whatever it might be.” 

Low-cost air quality sensors

Mehta has set up networks of sensors developed by PurpleAir, a Utah-based company, that can help monitor the amount of particulate matter (PM2.5) in the air. The technology helps people be aware of any dangers and take any action necessary to protect themselves. 

“We can deploy these networks of low-cost air quality sensors in First Nations communities or remote communities. They need to know what’s going on. They’re often flying in the dark because they have absolutely no provincial or federal air quality monitors on those locations.”

Indigenous communities rely on their land since it is deeply rooted in their culture, and if the climate continues to get worse, it can negatively affect their relationships with the land. 

Ranjan Datta, a professor from Mount Royal University who teaches in the department of humanities focusing on Indigenous studies, says that the repercussions of climate change are already being felt. 

“There is less water flowing during summer, and wetlands are drying. We know that the animals are going to suffer. If the animals suffer, and the land suffers, we’re going to suffer.”

Datta believes that in order to find a solution to air pollution, we must work on ourselves and work on this issue with all communities. 

“Fighting for meaningful climate change solutions is not only an Indigenous responsibility, it is all of our responsibilities. We must learn community-engaged perspectives from the Indigenous community and practice those in our everyday life,” Datta says. 

In search of finding a solution to the mass amounts of air pollution that exist on Gabriola Island, the downside of their efforts is that Mehta and his wife had to leave the home that they worked so hard on due to the risks. 

Correction
A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that the air quality sensors were developed by Michael Mehta and detected carbon dioxide. They were developed by PurpleAir and detect particulate matter.

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