Air quality has been top of mind for Canadians this summer—not just because of the coronavirus, but also, and more visibly, the wildfires that have blighted the west coast. We know, intuitively, that smoke pollution is not good for our health—it hurts to breathe, our eyes sting and we get headaches—but what actually is going on?
Smoke from wildfires, vehicle exhaust and industry contains a mix of solid and liquid particles, some of which are so small they can enter the lungs and pores of skin. “Even for healthy people, this can trigger respiratory issues and allergies and reduce lung function, especially in children,” says Martin Mercier, a product specialist at Cyclo Vac, which specializes in centralized vacuum cleaners and air purifiers. “For people with lung disease, that’s even worse, and it can also lead to asthma attacks and worsen conditions like chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder (COPD).”
And you not only need to be concerned about air quality during wildfire season. “The World Health Organization estimates that more than 90 per cent of the world’s population is exposed to daily air pollution that exceeds its guidelines,” says Vancouver dermatologist Dr. Katie Beleznay. “Air pollution is increasingly believed to play a role in a number of common skin conditions including acne, atopic dermatitis and psoriasis. In addition, research suggests it may contribute to skin aging including wrinkles and pigmented spots.”
What might you notice IRL? “A more dull appearance of the skin may be noted compared to counterparts living in non-urban sites that have a more radiant appearance,” says Dr. Renee Beach, a dermatologist based in Toronto. “Depending on the skin tone, this could be a more ashen appearance or more fine lines.”
Mercier says we might not even get respite indoors, where cooking, renovations, wood-burning stoves and even incense and candles can create tiny particles in the air. Dusting, sweeping and vacuuming with a device that doesn’t have a high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filter can disturb particles that have settled on surfaces or floors. And then there are the liquid pollutants—even from substances like air fresheners—that can be absorbed into soft furnishings and slowly released over time.
In terms of skin health, Dr. Beleznay suggests that a good cleanser, sunscreen and topical antioxidant can help prevent damage from the environment. Says Dr. Beach: “Commercially available serums that contain antioxidants like vitamin C (l-ascorbic acid), vitamin E (tocopherol), ferulic acid and phloretin are great at providing protection from free-radical damage. They can be applied daily or every two days to provide protective benefit.”
Short of moving to the countryside, there’s not much we can do to improve the general air quality of the world outside, but we can take steps to improve the indoors. Typically, the best thing to do is to throw open the windows and let the pollutants and, potentially, coronavirus particles, out. But if the air outside is bad, that’s not going to help, which is where purifiers come in.
There are two types, explains Mercier: portable ones, and ones that can be installed in your home’s heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) system. These aren’t the same as air filters: purifiers like those made by Cyclo Vac will filter out the particulate matter, but also contain UV lamps that de-activate the DNA of bacteria, viruses and other pathogens, and neutralize bad smells.
“Customers need to do their homework to see what they’re getting,” he says. “You can go to Costco and buy something that has no UV and no capability of getting rid of odours. Or you can buy something higher quality—though not necessarily much more expensive—and you will see the difference very quickly.” Odours both nice and nasty will dissipate more quickly if you’re using a purifier; Mercier suggests that, if you cook bacon in the morning, it will take five minutes to disappear instead of 20.
What does he recommend between an HVAC system and a portable one? “Get the best option you can afford. Most new homes have the option to have an air-exchange system installed depending on the province and bylaws. It’s easy to add a UVC system to the cold-air return. Then you need to consider the running costs: are replacement UV lamps and filters expensive? Can you find them easily?”
And in real, everyday terms, will you actually notice the difference in your health and skin if you start to pay attention to the air around you? It’s an emphatic yes from Mercier. “I have asthma and have noticed that, since I started using a portable device that I take from room to room, I use my inhalers less often, I don’t have to fill my prescription as frequently. My allergies aren’t as bad. I’m sleeping better. Did I live 40 years without one? Yes. Am I happy I have one now? Absolutely.” —Aileen Lalor
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