The alarming pall of pollution hanging over Williams Lake and Quesnel last week was a graphic illustration of our vulnerability to temperature inversions. The Ministry of Health issued an Air Quality Advisory “due to high concentrations of fine particulate matter that are expected to persist until weather conditions change.”
So what is this fine particulate matter and how does it affect us? Environment Canada says it is “composed of minute solid particles and tiny liquid droplets that remain suspended in air. It is emitted directly to air from cars, trucks, home firewood-burning, industry, forest fires and waste burning. It can also form in air as a result of reactions involving pollutants such as sulphur oxides, nitrogen oxides, volatile organic compounds and ammonia. ..When inhaled deeply into the lungs, even small amounts of PM2.5 can cause serious health problems… Fine particulate matter can damage vegetation and structures, contribute to haze, and reduce visibility.”
The permit (8808) allowing Atlantic Power (AP) to burn railroad ties in its Williams Lake power plant does not require any change in fuel composition during inversions. Yet, AP’s stack tests demonstrate that burning the creosote-treated ties will introduce sulphur compounds that we have not had to deal with here. And those compounds are among the most damaging fine particles known to science. Other contaminants named above would be added or increased with rail tie burning, so we’d be inhaling far worse than road dust.
Scientists have found that even low levels of particulate matter in the air can heighten the risk of lung and heart disease, even when that exposure is short-term www.bcairquality.ca./health/index.html At most risk are children, seniors, diabetics and those with chronic respiratory diseases.
Looking at the air quality readings for Wed. Jan 25, we discover that PM2.5 concentrations reached the upper limit of acceptable presence in the atmosphere, as established by provincial agencies. So that’s a maximum that’s considered tolerable, not a goal. It can’t even be considered a safe level, because none has been established in scientific studies.
So, what sense does it make to put our vulnerable populations at greater risk by burning rail ties in our narrow, inversion-prone valley?