Cariboo mom hands out air quality monitors after son's asthma death during wildfires | iNFOnews | Thompson-Okanagan's News Source

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Cariboo mom hands out air quality monitors after son's asthma death during wildfires

Nine-year-old Carter Vigh, wearing a red sweatshirt, is pictured with his brother Daxton (left), sister Cadence, father James and mother Amber. Carter died of asthma exacerbated by wildfire smoke in July 2023.
Image Credit: THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-Amber Vigh

Nine-year-old Carter Vigh was having a great day last July 11, visiting a waterpark, enjoying a picnic lunch and playing soccer with other kids at a day camp run by his mother, Amber Vigh.

At the time, wildfires were raging throughout parts of British Columbia and so Amber checked the air quality index on a weather app that morning to make sure it was safe for Carter — who had asthma — to play outside.

The air quality reading was OK, said Vigh, who lives in 100 Mile House in central British Columbia, but she didn't know that the reading wasn't local. The closest air quality monitoring station was in Williams Lake, nearly 100 km away.

When wildfire smoke rolled into 100 Mile House that afternoon, she got all of the kids, including Carter, inside.

It wasn't until Carter was back home on the couch in the early evening that he "started coughing like crazy," Vigh said.

She and her husband gave Carter his asthma inhalers and tried to cool him down with a bath, but he got worse.

"We knew something terrible was wrong and that he needed to go get oxygen," she said.

Carter died later in hospital of asthma exacerbated by wildfire smoke.

"I want people to realize that asthma can go from zero to 100 in the blink of an eye," Vigh said in an interview.

She also wants people to know that "your indoor air quality isn't always a safe haven without having air purifiers."

"We honestly didn't have one because it wasn't something we ever really knew much about," Vigh said.

That's why the Vigh family started Carter's Project in partnership with the BC Lung Foundation.

On May 14, they will distribute 100 air quality monitors throughout 100 Mile House and teach people how to build their own air purifiers using box fans and HEPA (high efficiency particulate air) furnace filters.

Although they're starting with their hometown, their goal is to bring air quality monitors and air filters to every community in British Columbia as they face yet another wildfire season. They'd like to eventually expand the program to communities all over the country, Vigh said.

The president and CEO of the BC Lung Foundation said when Carter died, the tragedy made him realize that his organization could do more to make sure people have the tools they need to "learn about what's in the air they breathe, and to be able to take action."

"It is such an important thing to have that (air quality) information about what's happening in your own backyard," said Chris Lam.

"Depending on how the wind blows that day, you can even divide 100 Mile House into six, seven or eight different regions where their air quality might potentially be dramatically different."

Equally crucial is making sure people have the ability to monitor and filter the air inside their homes, because harmful particulate matter from wildfire smoke and other pollutants can get in, Lam said.

"We often think about smoke being outside," he said.

"(But) we spend about 90 per cent of our days indoors, whether that's in our homes or at work or at school," he said.

"Understanding what's in the air ... and how that affects our indoor environments becomes so important."

Dr. Melissa Lem, president of Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment, called Carter's Project "incredible."

"Now is exactly the right time, because every sign is pointing to another summer of deadly smoke. And we need to start preparing now," she said.

"Climate change is happening and we're going to have these wildfire smoke crises year after year. But we also have to put out the fire at its source and prevent the smoke from getting worse by reducing our use of fossil fuels," said Lem, a family physician in Vancouver who also works in rural and northern communities.

Governments also need to step in and help protect people from poor air quality, Lem said.

Just as governments have funded home retrofit programs to help people reduce their carbon footprint, they should also consider subsidizing air filters to ensure everyone can breathe clean air indoors, she said.

Municipalities should also be thinking about "clean air shelters" when local air pollution reaches a certain level, similar to cooling centres opening during heat waves, Lem said.

For Vigh, working to prevent other families from losing a loved one due to wildfire smoke helps her deal with her grief.

"Carter would have been the kid that would have made a difference in this world had he been given the chance," she said.

"I'm proud that we can do this in his name and make that difference for him."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 25, 2024.

Canadian Press health coverage receives support through a partnership with the Canadian Medical Association. CP is solely responsible for this content.

News from © The Canadian Press, 2024
The Canadian Press

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