British Columbia

Air purification sales surge as Canadians anticipate smoky summer stuck indoors

Health concerns are driving the creation of 'clean air shelters' in homes and public spaces across western Canada.

Health concerns are driving the creation of 'clean air shelters' in homes and public spaces in western Canada

The daytime sky over Prince George was dark orange — and outright black in some places — as smoke and ash from nearby wildfires floated over B.C. in 2018. (Submitted by Erica Lindsey)

People in Western Canada are stocking up on air purifiers and heavy-duty carbon filters as they anticipate what could be another summer stuck indoors due to wildfire smoke.

"People are preparing," said Nadine Serwatkewich, who manages the warehouse for the Filter Shop at BGE in Prince George, B.C.

She said the sales surge started in summer 2018 when smoke from a record-breaking wildfire season drifted over the city, at times blocking out the sun.

"It was insane," she said. "We have a manufacturing plant in Edmonton and they were building [products] as fast as they could and getting them out the door."

Nadine Serwatkewich has shelves piled high with filters and air purifiers, ready for wildfire season. (Andrew Kurjata/CBC)

B.C. cities among most polluted in the world

Residents of north-central B.C. were advised to stay indoors for weeks at a time in 2018 as the air quality health index continuously hit 10+, or "very hazardous" levels.

The smoke was so bad that both Prince George and neighbouring Quesnel were among the 10 most polluted cities in the world in August 2018, according to a global survey conducted by Greenpeace, using data from IQAir.

Smoke also drifted into major centres like Edmonton and Vancouver, where retailers say they've seen a corresponding sales bump in air purification supplies. Best Buy Canada said while sales of air purifiers have increased nationwide, B.C. and Alberta sales were up by more than 50 per cent in 2018, with similar trends expected to continue into 2019.

A spokesperson for Home Hardware said sales have "significantly increased due to the many forest fires in the west," and Canadian Tire said they've seen "substantial growth," with B.C. accounting for the highest jump. Statistics Canada does not track sales of purifiers directly, but said the category containing them increased in 2018.

For weeks in 2018, the air quality health index in Prince George was 10+, which is the highest ranking possible. (Andrew Kurjata/CBC)

Refuge at the mall

The sales bump is no surprise to Paulo Branco, operations manager for Pine Centre Mall, northern B.C.'s largest indoor shopping centre.

He's added $8,500 to his budget so he can purchase carbon filters for the mall's 130 rooftop HVAC units, along with a pair of industrial air scrubbers to capture any smoke that sneaks through doors and windows.

Branco said thousands of people, including evacuees, visit the mall to escape smoke and fight cabin fever, and he feels a responsibility to give them a safe space to breathe.

"The way things are going … I think we have to just move more towards being ready to deal with smoke every year," he said.

Paulo Branco holds a carbon filter ready for use in one of the 130 HVAC units on the roof of Pine Centre Mall in Prince George, B.C. Carbon filters block both the particulate and smell of wildfire smoke using activated charcoal, but are also twice as expensive as regular filters. (Andrew Kurjata/CBC)

That's the advice of Sarah Henderson of the B.C. Centre for Disease Control, who said people should think about creating "clean air shelters" — rooms or buildings equipped to filter out the particulate found in wildfire smoke.

Henderson advised people in smoke-prone communities to purchase air purifiers for the rooms they spend the most time in, especially bedrooms. She also said high-quality filters are a worthwhile investment, and people living in rental units should speak to landlords about what protections are in place.

Beyond that, she said cities and health officials should consider how they help people without homes during smoky seasons.

"In very cold winter conditions there's going to be warming shelters," she said.

"We can talk about the same thing during wildfire smoke where we have cleaner air shelters open so that there is a cool and clean environment where people can take refuge."

Henderson said libraries and community centres can act as such refuges, and she is hearing more from municipal leaders interested in the idea.

"This issue is on the minds of everybody and everybody's trying to find things that can work into the future," she said.

People in western Canada are stocking up on air purifiers and carbon filters as they anticipate what could be another smoky summer. Andrew Kurjata reports. 5:47

About the Author

Andrew Kurjata

CBC Prince George | @akurjata

Andrew Kurjata is an award-winning journalist covering Northern British Columbia for CBC Radio and cbc.ca, situated in the traditional territory of the Lheidli T'enneh in Prince George. You can email him at andrew.kurjata@cbc.ca.