Clearing the air

Smoke curling out of chimneys is a common and cozy sight around British Columbia, especially once the colder weather hits. Unfortunately, as a significant source of air pollution, residential wood smoke can also harm public health.

To better understand how residential wood smoke affects air quality in B.C. communities, Matt Wagstaff, a new graduate of the UBC Master of Science in Occupational Health and Environmental Hygiene program, undertook a thesis project to develop a new mobile monitoring method for air quality.

Here he explains his research and shares advice for others who may be considering this unique program.

Master of Science in Occupational & Environmental Hygiene graduate Matt Wagstaff

Tell us about your thesis project

Residential wood burning is one of the main human sources of fine particulate pollution in British Columbia. It can lead to decreased air quality in communities during the winter months especially, when people burn more wood to heat their homes. The small particles in wood smoke (called PM2.5 as they are 2.5 microns or less in size) are small enough that they can reach deep into the lungs when inhaled. This can have significant effects on public health, especially for people with pre-existing lung or heart diseases, the elderly, and children.

Currently air quality is measured at monitoring stations across British Columbia, but these cannot be installed in every community, and where they are installed they only capture a snapshot of community air quality. My thesis project developed a mobile air quality monitoring method that allows us to measure and map the air quality across communities, either to add context to existing monitoring data, or to capture data in unmonitored communities in a cost-effective way. By using a new monitoring instrument, we are also able to measure fine particulate pollution specifically from wood burning.

How did you become interested in studying residential wood smoke?

While I was doing my undergraduate studies in UBC’s Combined Major in Science program, I had the opportunity to work with Dr. Michael Brauer and Dr. Sarah Henderson on a mobile air quality monitoring project. That experience gave me a lot of exposure to the Master of Science in Occupational and Environmental Hygiene program, and sparked my interest in studying the health effects of wood smoke. This project was, in many ways, an extension of that.

Matt Wagstaff in the field.

You started a program to enable community groups to do their own mobile air quality monitoring. Tell us about that.

Last fall I was invited to give a webinar about my research for the BC Lung Association. Through the webinar, some volunteer community groups who were interested in implementing mobile air quality monitoring in their own communities reached out to me. That prompted us to create a citizens science project as an extension to my thesis project – essentially a way to give communities the tools to use the method I developed and perform mobile air quality monitoring themselves.

With this citizens’ science project, I tried to make air quality monitoring as simple as possible. I set up the communities with mobile monitoring equipment and developed a training package that laid out how to plan their monitoring program, how to set up the equipment, and how to conduct the monitoring.

Once the data collection was complete, a colleague at the BC Centre for Disease Control created a web app based on my data analysis code, which the community groups to simply upload their data and download a map showing the average air quality patterns captured by their monitoring.

So far, we’ve successfully piloted the citizen’s science project in Valemount and Golden. Our hope is that other community groups are interested and that we’ll be able to run it in other communities in the future.

How do you think your research will impact public health?

We’ve collected very useful data about where in B.C. residential wood smoke is harming air quality. Residential wood smoke is a very complex issue, as there are many reasons why people choose to heat their homes by burning wood, but my hope is that with this data, affected communities will have the information they need to make changes that reduce residential wood smoke as much as possible and improve air quality.

What made you interested in pursuing a Master of Science in Occupational and Environmental Hygiene?

I knew I definitely wanted to work in an applied science role, but I was initially undecided on what field I wanted to focus on. What really attracted me to hygiene was the health component – by applying the skills you learn in this field you can really have an impact on reducing exposures and improving the health of people and communities. Hygiene to me is a really interesting field because it is so practical.

What’s your advice for students who are considering the Master of Science in Occupational & Environmental Hygiene program?

Do it! There are many things I learned that I might not have thought about before the program. The program covers the field in great detail, from learning about health impacts of exposures, to how to monitor and assess them, and then finally how to control and reduce them.

There are lots of practical projects out in the field during our courses and you can then choose between completing an in-depth thesis (like I did) or a four-month work term. From these you develop various technical skills and gain a lot of hands-on experience.

What’s next for you?

I’m currently exploring job opportunities related to both hygiene and air quality. I have really enjoyed exploring B.C. in my fieldwork to date and would like to continue doing that with my next job.