Suffering through smoke in Calgary? Here's what you can do about it

Stay inside, avoid exertion, keep your windows closed — and you probably shouldn't bother with that mask, says a Calgary physician about how to fight the smoke.

Calgary's air quality is like smoking "10 to 15 cigarettes per day"

Calgarian Leslie Kramer took this photo of the city skyline, normally easily visible. On Friday morning, it was clouded by thick smoke. (Leslie Kramer)

Stay inside, avoid exertion, keep your windows closed — and you should probably do some research on that mask before putting it on. 

That's the advice from a Calgary physician as smoky skies paint the city an opaque orange.

The Air Quality Health Index in Calgary has reached 10+, or high risk, with most of the province under a special air quality alert due to smoke blowing in from wildfires in northern Alberta.

Dr. Raj Bhardwaj, a Calgary physician, says the particulate in the air on Friday has the same health effects as smoking 10-15 cigarettes a day. He spoke with the Calgary Eyeopener to provide tips on how you can protect yourself in this smoky weather.

Remain indoors if you can

While it might seem obvious, avoiding exposure in the first place by staying indoors is critical.

This is particularly important for children, seniors and those with pre-existing illnesses that can affect their breathing such as asthma and COPD.

The City of Calgary's recreation department cancelled activities it could not move indoors, though parks remain open. 

Athletes and the physically fit aren't exempt from needing to limit exposure.

"If you were going to say, 'well, I'm training for a marathon and I want to go for a long run today,' I would consider maybe getting on a treadmill instead," said Bhardwaj.

The Calgary Humane Society is encouraging pet owners to consider limiting time spent outdoors with their animals until the air quality improves.

Keep windows closed

It's important to keep as much smoke out of your environment as possible, and to let air filters do their job. That means keeping windows closed in the home and in the car. 

If you are in an area where you can't control that, such as a building with forced air heating where the air intake brings in smoke from outside, try finding a different controlled indoor environment such as a public library or shopping centre.

Masks not always helpful

As the smoke gets denser outside, many turn to masks to protect themselves. But the coverings may not be effective.

"I used … to recommend against masks because there's a few problems with them," said Bhardwaj.According to the physician, a mask has to have small enough pores that it can filter out the tiny particles in the smoke for it to have any benefit to the average person.

This was the smoky view of downtown as seen from Prince's Island Park on Thursday. (Julievic Moran)

"You need to have a special mask and it needs to be properly fitted so no air is getting in around the mask," said Bhardwaj.

Another concern when using a mask is that breathing through it can be more difficult, so people with heart or lung problems or asthma could end up feeling worse rather than better.

"Imagine trying to run a race breathing through a straw," said Bhardwaj.

With files from the Calgary Eyeopener and Rachel Ward