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Lower Mainland warnings issued as heat, air quality bring health risks

Jennifer Saltman, Vancouver Sun

Trying to beat the heat on Monday, park-goers soak up the sun while enjoying a warm day in Vancouver. It's expected to get much hotter in the next few days. Air quality warning have also been issued for the Lower Mainland. (RICHARD LAM/Postmedia News)

Trying to beat the heat on Monday, park-goers soak up the sun while enjoying a warm day in Vancouver. It's expected to get much hotter in the next few days. Air quality warning have also been issued for the Lower Mainland. (RICHARD LAM/Postmedia News)

Health professionals in the Lower Mainland are warning the public to take extra precautions in the face of an impending heat wave and smoky air quality.

On Sunday, Environment Canada issued a special weather statement for the south coast region because of a “massive” ridge of high pressure that will build over the area and lead to several days of hot weather this week, starting Tuesday.

Daytime highs are expected to hit the mid- to upper 30s in the Fraser Valley, Howe Sound-Whistler and inland Vancouver Island. All-time high records for the month of August could be broken.

A change in wind direction is also expected to bring smoke from forest fires in the B.C. Interior down to the Lower Mainland.

Fraser Health medical health officer Dr. Andrew Larder said Fraser Health doesn’t track heat-related illness on an ongoing basis, but studies show that emergency room and doctor’s office visits, along with mortality rates, go up during times of extreme heat.

Everyone is at risk for heat-related illnesses such as heat exhaustion and heat stroke, but Larder said pregnant women, children under the age of five, seniors, people with chronic health conditions, people with mental illness and those who are socially isolated are most vulnerable.

Vancouver Coastal Health medical health officer Dr. Meena Dawar issued a similar warning Monday.

B.C. seniors advocate Isobel Mackenzie said seniors have different levels of vulnerability.

As we get older, our circulatory systems are less robust than they used to be and we don’t sweat as effectively, which makes it harder to cool down. Existing illnesses and some medications can make seniors more sensitive to heat as well.

Mackenzie said she’s particularly concerned about seniors who live in older and highrise apartment buildings that are not air-conditioned and where it is difficult to cool off. Closing the shades, opening windows, using fans and avoiding using the oven are some ways to keep a home cool if there is no air conditioning.

“This is not a condition we usually experience for a long period of time, so we’re not equipped for it,” Mackenzie said.

Mackenzie said people should be vigilant about checking in on elderly friends and family members and watch for signs of heat exhaustion or heat stroke, such as disorientation.

Union Gospel Mission spokesman Jeremy Hunka said people without homes are extremely vulnerable to hot weather, particularly because their health is already compromised by living on the streets and when the heat hits they can quickly develop heat exhaustion or heat stroke.

“I think not a lot of the public understand the risks that comes with this extreme heat especially for a vulnerable homeless population,” Hunka said. “If they have multiple health issues or mental health issues and the heat hits it adds a whole new layer of risk onto an already really teetering situation.”

In addition to providing water and washrooms at its reception centre, UGM has an outreach team filling up trunks of cars with water and juice to hand out, along with sun-protection items such as hats. They’re also warning people about the risks that come with extreme heat.

The B.C. SPCA has received 591 calls to rescue dogs in hot cars throughout the province so far this year, and now that the hot weather’s hit it’s anticipated the organization will receive a record number of calls for the year.

Pet owners are urged to leave animals at home if they are doing an activity that will require them to leave their pets in the car. It can take as little as 10 minutes for a dog to suffer heat stroke and die in a parked car, even if it’s in the shade and the windows are open.

Metro Vancouver issued a pre-emptive air-quality advisory Monday and staff will be watching the weather patterns closely throughout the week.

“We’re kind of monitoring two different potential situations,” said air quality planner Geoff Doerksen. “One is wildfire smoke impacting our region and the other is due to the high temperatures when we tend to see high, elevated ground-level ozone occurring, so we’re watching those two potential situations unfold. Both could happen at the same time.”

Smoke prompted Monday’s warning, which is valid for Tuesday, because winds that normally travel from the coast to the Interior are expected to switch direction and bring warm, dry and smoky air to the coast.

Ground-level ozone, which is formed when nitrogen oxides and organic compounds react in the air in the presence of sunlight, will be an issue later in the week as temperatures increase.

Metro Vancouver issued two one-day air quality advisories in July — one for ground-level ozone and one for fine particulate matter because of wildfire smoke. Last year no air-quality advisories were issued, and in 2015 Metro Vancouver issued 10 one-day advisories.

The heat and lack of rain in July mean high to extreme fire danger ratings will stay in place across much of southern B.C.

The change in wind direction to outflow conditions is expected to dry out coastal forests, making them more susceptible to fires and more challenging for firefighters to put out existing fires, according to the B.C. Wildfire Service.

Members of the public are asked to be cautious to prevent human-caused fires. This includes obeying fire bans and properly disposing of cigarettes.

HOT WEATHER TIPS

Fraser Health medical health officer Dr. Andrew Larder said there are a number of simple ways to prevent heat-related illnesses, including:

• Spend time in air-conditioned facilities, use public pools or water parks, or take cool baths or showers.

• Dress for the weather (hat, sunglasses, loose clothing) and stay in the shade.

• Limit strenuous outdoor activity.

• Stay hydrated — don’t wait until you are thirsty.

• Check on others who may be at risk for heat-related illness.

• Never leave people or pets inside a parked vehicle.

• Stay informed about health and safety in the heat and monitor alerts and forecasts issued by Environment Canada.