Nunatsiaq Online
NEWS: Nunavut June 09, 2014 - 6:32 am

Nunavut awaits air quality testing as Iqaluit dump fire continues

Smoke hazards still unknown, but schools close when smoke fills buildings

PETER VARGA
The City of Iqaluit’s dump fire smoulders within a 10-metre-high garbage pile June 8. Westerly winds blowing smoke into into the city have caused school closures and health concerns among residents. The Government of Nunavut says Environment Canada and Health Canada will provide equipment to assess air quality in the city. (PHOTO BY PETER VARGA)
The City of Iqaluit’s dump fire smoulders within a 10-metre-high garbage pile June 8. Westerly winds blowing smoke into into the city have caused school closures and health concerns among residents. The Government of Nunavut says Environment Canada and Health Canada will provide equipment to assess air quality in the city. (PHOTO BY PETER VARGA)

Government ministers and the City of Iqaluit say two federal agencies, Health Canada and Environment Canada, are working on a plan to bring air-quality monitoring equipment to Iqaluit as the community’s dump fire continues.

“We will find out about the air quality testing equipment this week, and I too want to see the air quality determined,” Nunavut Environment Minister Johnny Mike said in the legislative assembly June 5.

“We expect Health Canada officials to come here this week as well. I am expecting news on that later on.”

Environment Canada could not confirm June 6 that they’re involved in air monitoring for Iqaluit, and Health Canada’s media relations department did not immediately return calls for comment.

So for now, health hazards posed by smoke from Iqaluit’s three-week-old dump fire are still unknown and Iqalummiut are left to judge for themselves, based on foul smells that might blow into their neighbourhoods depending on wind direction.

Three of Iqaluit’s schools closed their doors for parts of June 5 and June 6.

“In some cases we had reports of students that were feeling sick, and complaining about the smell, and teachers as well,” said Paul Mooney, superintendent of Qikiqtani School Operations, which administers public schools in the region.

The decision to close, he said, is left up to school principals.

Those who did — the principals of Aqsarniit Middle School on June 5 and 6, Joamie School on June 5 and Nanook School on the June 6 – “found that there was the smell of smoke throughout the building,” Mooney said.

Public advisories from the territorial health department of potential health effects from dump fire smoke, said that it contains a mixture of chemicals and fine particles.

“The types and amount of particles and chemicals in the smoke varies depending on what is burning and the burn temperature,” said an advisory issued for May 30 to June 7.

George Hickes, the MLA for Iqaluit-Tasiluk, complained June 5 in the legislature about not getting a straight answer to repeated questions about the Iqaluit’s air quality.

He said that the environment department’s business plan “talks about environmental monitoring and investigating spills and emergency response.”

One of the conditions in that plan is to develop environmental guidelines, he said.

“Does the minister’s department have guidelines established on air quality in consideration of toxic chemicals in the air?” he asked Mike.

Mike replied only that he would make a statement about the matter “some time soon, but at this time, I’ll take it as notice.”

According to Environment Canada, health risks caused by the release of potentially toxic chemicals called dioxins and furans rank among the greatest concerns, the agency states on its website.

Produced by burning plastics, fuel and wood, dioxins and furans can cause “certain types of cancers,” liver problems, and impairment of the immune system, among other health effects, the website states.

Health Canada states on its website that here are more than 210 varieties of dioxins and furans.

The biggest source of these is from “the large-scale burning of municipal and medical waste,” the agency states online.

The territorial department of health’s advisory on the dump fire smoke says Iqaluit residents should watch for “wheezing, shortness of breath, difficulty of taking a full breath, tightness in your chest, light-headedness and dizziness.”

Although the advisory states “it is unlikely that public buildings and schools will close because of the smoke,” that’s just what three Iqaluit schools did June 5 and June 6.

“When principals get to a school and open a school for the day, they assess anything and everything about the building,” said Mooney. “And the schools that closed found that there was the smell of smoke throughout the building.”

Schools typically keep their air ventilation systems on all night, “which freshens the air for the morning,” Mooney said.

“In the case of Aqsarniit School, its air-handling system is sort of faced towards where the smoke would come,” he told Nunatsiaq News at the end of the day, June 6.

That morning, he said, “there was a strong smell of smoke in the air.”

Any decisions to cancel classes for the day “would be made on the basis of whether the rooms are comfortable to use, and whether the smell is really noticeable,” he said.

Authorities from Nanook School in Apex and the Iqaluit District Education Authority referred all questions to the QSO.

Differences in schools’ responses to the dump smoke hazard is related to the direction of the wind, and how much smoke it carries into their buildings.

School principals “do make the recommendation to close pretty consistently,” based on their good judgment, Mooney said. “What’s inconsistent is what the wind is doing.”

The department of health has issued smoke-warning advisories whenever winds are forecast to blow out of the west, and into the city.

These have warned residents to stay indoors as much as possible “with doors and windows closed, and air exchangers turned off,” and “If you have to go outside, limit physical activity.”

“I suppose if the dump fire goes on for six weeks, we may look for forecasts — like we do for snow storms,” Mooney said. “But I’m hoping that doesn’t have to happen.”

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