TRU prof calls for Domtar shutdown, cancellation of Ribfest due to smoke

By James Peters
August 9, 2017 - 1:57pm

KAMLOOPS — A Thompson Rivers University professor says it seems Kamloops residents aren't taking the public health risk caused by wildfire smoke seriously enough.

Dr. Michael Mehta says the Domtar pulp mill should shut down until the air clears, and is calling on Ribfest organizers to cancel this weekend's event.

Mehta, a Professor of Geography and Environmental Studies, oversees an array of air quality monitors stationed throughout Kamloops, and says nearby wildfires are causing hazardous levels of air pollution.

"These levels are unprecedented," said Mehta. "There are very few places in the world that have seen levels as high as we have seen in Kamloops in the past month. They are typically, right now at least, two to three times higher than you would see on some of the worst air days in Beijing."

While there has been an increase in masks being purchased and worn by Kamloops residents, Mehta says too many are ignoring the risks.

"People are still driving around the city with the windows in their vehicles open, they're walking around with their children in carriages, and they're exposing themselves unnecessarily. We see workers outside without masks, without any protection, doing construction; people doing gardening. So it's clear that the message that this is a real risk event, that this is a public emergency, has not sunk in."

Added to the smoke particles in the air are particulate contributions from industrial sources such as the Domtar pulp mill.

"There's a very clear pattern when you look at the signature pollutant that comes from Domtar, that when it spikes, the pollutants in the city spike," said Mehta. "This suggests there's a contribution from these industrial sources and that, in order to protect public health, we need to seriously consider closing them down during such emergency situations."

"When you start to look at all the different contributions including, of course, traffic and other kinds of pollution sources, you'll see that there's an additive linear relationship. The exact contribution from Domtar from these extremely high readings is difficult to parcel out, but my best guest is it's somewhere in the order of 20 to 25 per cent."

As for Ribfest, which has become a signature annual festival put on in Riverside Park by local Rotary groups, Mehta says organizers should consider the consequences of luring so many people outdoors.

"Whenever we bring people together into an outdoor environment when the exposures are likely to be high — as they will be probably this weekend — we increase the risk to the general population. I think the responsible and courageous thing to do is for organizers of events like Ribfest is to actually cancel and reschedule," said Mehta.

"This has been done with the Dragon Boat Festival, for example, and in our case, with Ribfest, since it's a family event and lots of children are likely to be in attendance, it is the right thing to do."

"To me, it's very similar to having something like an avian flu outbreak, where you want to minimize exposure and the possibility of creating larger problems down the line with public health crises."

Mehta is calling on Interior Health officials to treat the air quality situation with greater urgency.

"The medical officers of health for Interior Health need to be a lot more proactive and a lot more honest about their risk communication, and in some cases, and they do have the purview to do this, to close down events where the public is exposed to large risks."

"There's a been a disconcerting and troubling trend with Interior Health and other government experts downplaying the risks from this extreme exposure. The data is clear: we are way past all regulatory standards. I think it behooves us to actually consider some stronger actions."

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