We are being tested by smoke, fire, heat and disease

As we emerge from the pandemic, Kamloopsians expect that summer, especially this summer, will be liberating.

image: Globe and Mail

After being cooped up all winter, carefully  cloistering ourselves and observing ceremonial cleansing, we look forward to being outside, basking in the glory of Kamloops’ legendary heat.

But this summer, the heat is oppressive. And like the pandemic, the smoke keeps us indoors. Now all we want to do is seek the refuge of an air conditioned shelter.

It all tests our resiliency and takes its toll on our psyche.

Instead of being rewarded for our good hygiene in fighting the pandemic, we are stuck inside as thick smoke from wildfires that blanket the city.

When you’re choking on smoke and your eyes are watering, it’s bad for your physical health to be outside. And it’s bad for your mental health to be inside.

We imagined that the “new normal” will be adjusting to a world in which most people are vaccinated and COVID-19 is just another bug in the cast of flu characters.

But our new normal will have to include hotter summers, wildfires and smoke. The areas burned will become even greater.

The area burned by wildfires in Canada has doubled since the early 1970s, says Dr. Mike Flannigan, research chair for fire science at Thompson Rivers University.

And it’s only going to get worse, says Flannigan, – it’s just a matter of how much worse. Modest predictive modelling suggests the area burned in Canada will double again by the end of the century; more aggressive modelling predicts an increase by 11 times.

We are getting familiar with the measurement of the smoke hazard –just how bad is it? The hazard is measured by the weight of smoke particles in a certain volume of air; specifically, the weight of PM2.5 particles in micrograms per cubic metre.

What makes the PM2.5 particles so potent is that they can affect every organ in the body, not just the lungs.

Sarah Henderson, scientific director in environmental health services at the B.C. Centre for Disease Control, says that the particles are dangerous long before you can smell and taste the smoke. At levels of only 30 micrograms per cubic metre, adverse reactions begin:

“When it looks really bad, people think it is really bad,” she said. “But it becomes unhealthy long before it looks terrible. The immunological response ends up causing inflammation, and that inflammation is systemic.”

Concerned about the smoke hazard, I recently installed an air sensor, made by Purple Air, in my house. While the weekly average reading has been nine micrograms per cubic metre, which is safe, sometimes it peaks at over 50.

George Bonanno, a clinical psychologist at Columbia University, has studied people’s resiliency in the aftermath of hurricanes, terrorist attacks, life-threatening injuries and epidemics such as the 2003 SARS outbreak.

Bonanno’s research shows three common psychological responses to hardship. Two thirds of people are resilient and maintain relatively stable psychological and physical health. About 25 percent struggle temporarily with psychopathology such as depression or post-traumatic stress disorder and then recover. And 10 percent suffer lasting psychological distress.

We are being tested on a number of fronts. Physical and mental illnesses are not a sign of weakness –they provide an occasion for everyone to rise to the challenge, to draw closer together and support those in need.

Kick the bucket list

Bucket lists have a grim quality about them. Once they’re completed, what else is there to live for? They nag at you. Even if life gets in the way of completion, they sit impatiently to be done. They are potentially dangerous; things you always wanted in your youth might now be dangerous or foolhardy in later years. They represent delayed gratification; a future reward for living the right life now –a bit like heaven.

Cam, Ottawa Citizen

Cam, Ottawa Citizen

Retirement planers like bucket lists because they provide a reason why you to employ them. You’ve probably seen the ads. Buy that sailboat you always wanted and sail to Australia. Scale that mountain you only saw from a distance when young. You, too, can realize the dreams of your youthful-you in your new “mature” body.

There’s nothing wrong with lists. I make them all the time: things around the house that need fixing like the front door hinge. There’s nothing wrong with hopes and goals. The difference between those and a bucket list is that hopes and goals are a dynamic process, a direction, whereas bucket-list items are mere markers along that path.

Andrew Stark finds bucket lists a bit strange (Globe and Mail, December 30, 2016). “And so, as we spy the tip of the reaper’s cowl poking up over the horizon, we begin to write bucket lists. Lists full of concrete, vivid experiences that we hope to enjoy and savour for themselves, and vague status-oriented goals so empty of specificity that we couldn’t possibly value them for themselves.

“Bucket lists typically feature two kinds of items. First are desires, before the end comes, to experience the kinds of moments that bucket-listers tend to find valuable, pleasurable or enjoyable in and of themselves. Typical examples: ‘Swim naked in the Caribbean.’ ‘Be at Chichen Itza on December 12, 2020.’”

The trouble with concrete items is that we confuse specific tasks for the real goals we aim for. Climbing a mountain is part of a longing to enjoy the outdoors and remain fit. The things you might do to achieve those goals are a series, none of them worth listing. You no sooner finish one and the next becomes apparent.

“The second kind of item is the kind of thing that will bring success, status or money, such as ‘write a book,’ or “break or set a world record.’”

These things on a bucket list are more aspirational than concrete. We may want to “complete a great painting.” What we really long for is artistic expression. A friend of mine who calls himself a “tin-basher (heating and air conditioner contractor)” remarked with satisfaction on the completion duct work he completed; already realizing the art of a job creatively done.

Aspirational and concrete things on a bucket list are mere clues to a deeper understanding of what we long for.

“The bucket list is a recent innovation,” adds Stark. “The human psychology it lays bare –our tendency to conceive of things we value for themselves in concrete, particular terms. . .”

Natural doesn’t mean safe

Madeline Papineau, 17, wanted to lose a few pounds so she would look good in her graduation dress. She bought an “all-natural” green tea weight-loss supplement that promised to “increase your CALORIE BURNING capacity today.”


She took the capsules for six days according to the instructions. On the seventh day she woke up vomiting violently. She was very dehydrated and went to a Cornwall, Ontario, hospital where they gave her three litres of fluids intravenously.

Madeline continued with the weight-loss supplement and her condition worsened. Then her mother took her to the children’s hospital in Ottawa where they found that Madeline’s liver and kidneys were shutting down. They started dialysis immediately. After 10 days in intensive care and month at home, she began to recover.

The ingredients in the weight-loss supplement look innocuous: green, black and white tea extracts, vitamins, and bitter orange. They are not so innocent.  Medical reporter Andre Picard says: “But the reality is that drugs are drugs, whether they are ‘natural’ or not. And when it has a desired effect, it invariably also has an undesired side effect (Globe and Mail, May 31, 2016).”

“There are more than 60 case reports in medical literature of green tea extract being associated with liver failure, sometimes leading to transplant and death.” Bitter orange is listed as one of the “dirty dozen” by Consumer Reports, “linked to serious adverse events.”

How is it that dangerous drugs end up in remedies easily bought by teenagers who just want to lose a little weight? Astonishing, it’s because the regulator’s role is to make sure that the products contain the ingredients listed but not to verify that they do what they advertise such as “burn fat.” Adverse reactions such as Madeline’s don’t even have to be reported.

It’s puzzling why some drugs undergo rigorous testing for years in carefully controlled tests, costing billions of dollars, before they appear on the market. Others, deemed “natural,” are exempt.

I think this double standard exists because we see the natural world as good. Mother Nature protects and nurtures us. She would never harm us.

The natural world is neither good nor bad –it is just there. All creatures live in the natural world, including us. Everything we do is natural, including the manufacture of bombs and medicines. How could it be otherwise? It’s arrogant to think we are apart from nature.

If anything is unnatural, it is the lack of scrutiny of drugs for consumption. Buyers beware. “The result of this double standard is a need for consumers to embrace the admonition, caveat emptor,” says Picard. And we need to stop giving credence to the false notion that natural equals safe.