Is Smoke All there is to worry about?

Last night I had a disturbing thought pop-up and it leaves me a bit chilled as I remember it.

Some background:

I live in a rural area in southern BC. For those who have never been here it is a small town nestled in an east-west valley (a rarity in the mountains of BC) in a mountainous area of British Columbia (which, contrary to the implication in the name, is actually in Canada). Our part of the mountains aren’t the iconic Rockies of Banff and Jasper but they’re still mountains. Washington State is just a few kilometers south of us – the southern ‘wall’ of the valley (a mountain we call Togo) is actually in the USA.

The forest is thick on the north faces and sparse on the south faces of the mountains.

The past summer saw very good conditions for fire in the forest – we call that Wildfire now but we used to call it forest fire when I was a kid.

It got very concerning for us as we saw a community to the west of us, Rock Creek, ravaged by fire. Luckily no one lost their life but a number lost their homes. Fires sprang up in areas all around our little valley but luckily none here where I live. It was close – a very large ‘complex’ in the USA spewed a lot of smoke and embers and most of the time that was heading our way.

Early in the month of August that smoke was drifting over and into the valley … but most of it was over. In the last week of the month however a combination of weather conditions saw our valley fill with smoke which did not go away for over a week. At one point our air quality was rated worse than unhealthy – it was Hazardous! And we had to live and work in that smoke pall for almost nine days. The last few half the town was on Evacuation Alert.

By the first week of September the smoke was gone and the threat subsided. Clear skies returned and so did school and life carried on …

In the time since the smoke filled week I’ve been turning over in my head the experience and what the effects might have been on the health of the population, myself included. The Interior Health Agency, a government agency, wasn’t very proactive about helping people cope with the smoke emergency even though the provincial Centre for Disease Control (our own CDC) had previously published guidelines for managers dealing with just such smoke emergencies. Unless you were in the hospital or working in a senior care facility it’s unlikely you ran into anything from them or anyone representing them. What we did get was various levels of government giving suggestions about masks and limiting exposure but nothing like the suggestions in the CDC guidelines.

In the last week of September I caught the cold going around and here it is mid-October and I’m still suffering from its effects. For a while it had settled in my chest and I felt pretty miserable. To the point where I wondered if my exposure to the smoke a month before had left me more susceptible to the effects of this respiratory illness. (it doesn’t help that I was a cigarette smoke for over 30 years …)

The other day I learned a friend was recently diagnosed with terminal lung cancer and I guess that’s been riding around in the back of my head as well …

And last night all these things came together in a train of thought that lasted a fraction of a second but actually made me physically stop and think about it.

Here it goes.

  • Back in the ‘70s the USA came to the realization, after Love Canal, that there were a number of REALLY BAD toxic dump sites spread throughout the country. And these were ticking time bombs of toxic pollution that could go off at any time spreading sickness and disease far and wide as they contaminated soils and underground water tables. So a lot of discussion happened and a lot of effort was put into figuring out ways to clean contaminated sand, soil, gravel and water tables. One of these methods was to grow plants on the soil because it was discovered that some plants are really good a sucking heavy metals up and fixing them into the cells of the plant. Literally it means that plants are built out of the materials thy grow in – which makes a lot of sense. Hold onto that thought.
  • Sometime in the ‘70s (might have been the ‘80s) I remember reading an article about containment issues at WW2/Cold War sites where nuclear materials were produced and processed. Facilities created in exigent circumstances, like war, tend to be less considerate of the niceties environmental considerations than other facilities. Add to that the state of lack of actual knowledge at the time of construction and operation and you get sites that have contamination problems like Hanford Reservation (nuclear weapons material production) and Oak Ridge National Laboratory (material processing and enrichment).
    One of the ways they deal with their inability to decontaminate huge areas was to fence them off from humans and wildlife. Which made sense and was considered reasonable until someone realized that even though the deer, elk, possums and people couldn’t get inside the fence the Ducks and Geese could and did. All of a sudden the thought that migratory fowl were landing inside the fences, feeding in contaminated areas, leaving and being hunted and consumed by humans raised the specter of unknowable numbers of cancer and disease. Take that thought picture to the next item …
  • Other things grow ‘inside the fence’ in contaminated areas: Plants. Of concern here is Trees.
    You can see where all this is heading … all of a sudden I found myself wondering how far away the Hanford Reservation is from my town (about 250 miles by road), how many trees are on it in contaminated soils and has anyone actually considered the possibility of radioactive fall-out in the smoke and ash clouds from huge forest fires billowing into the sky?

Pretty far out? Could be – I’m Not a Scientist and have no field-specific training in any of these fields.

Check it out for yourself … just start by typing ‘heavy metal uptake in plants’ into Google’s search box.