Participants build DIY air filters at a recent workshop at Century House in New Westminster

SFU air filter workshops protect people from dangers of wildfire smoke

May 28, 2024

Reprinted from SFU News with permission

by Jeff Hodson

A Simon Fraser University (SFU)-led group is helping hundreds of seniors and renters in B.C. mitigate the growing health dangers of wildfire smoke and air pollution through a simple DIY-project.

Anne-Marie Nicol, associate professor of professional practice

The SFU-led Pacific Institute on Pathogens, Pandemics and Society (PIPPS) has led 25 workshops helping people build more than 500 air filters to clean the air in their homes and reduce exposure to fine particulates from wildfire smoke, which can cause lung cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, exacerbate asthma and make life miserable for people with existing lung disease.

“Indoor air quality is often overlooked,” says Anne-Marie Nicol, associate professor of professional practice in the Faculty of Health Sciences. “We are very concerned about the pollution that exists outside, but we often pay less attention to the air we breathe indoors, which is unfortunate as most of us spend 70-90 per cent of our time inside.”

This summer, in addition to the workshops throughout Metro Vancouver, Nicol and her team plan to take their show on the road, with at least 25 sessions planned for Lillooet, Rock Creek, Oliver and Osoyoos. She anticipates surpassing the 500 units built last year and wants to pilot the viability of the workshop in smaller, rural and Indigenous communities, where access to extra supplies may be difficult.

With funding partners, including B.C. Lung Foundation and the City of Vancouver, Nicol and her team lead dozens of workshops throughout Metro Vancouver helping people build simplified versions of the Corsi-Rosenthal box (an effective, do-it-yourself air filter that was developed during the COVID-19 pandemic). The workshops focus on low-income seniors and people with existing lung disease, like asthma.

People are supplied with box fans, air filters (MERV-13), duct tape and stickers. Supplies for a single unit cost less than $100. Participants sit and chat and build their filters that can be used to clean the air in a bedroom, or small family room. Multiple units can be used for larger homes.

“They do an amazing job of taking particulate out of the air, really quickly,” Nicol says. “And you can see it. That’s the fascinating thing about the unit, because it’s open at the back, you can see it fill up with pet hair and dust and it turns black.”

The units, though incredibly simple to make, have Clean Air Delivery Rates (CADR) comparable to commercial units, and this is supported by an evidence review conducted by the National Collaborating Centre For Environmental Health.

While some people can control the air quality in their homes, Nicol adds, many – including renters and people in group-living or subsidized housing – cannot. Sophisticated, personal air filtration systems can be costly.

Nicol, the knowledge translation lead at PIPPS, got the idea that these air filters could be used, not just for viruses, but to fine particulate matter, like wildfire smoke – an ever-growing issue in B.C.’s hot summers. 

“When it is wildfire season, we’re telling people to go inside,” says Nicol. “To reduce their exposure outside. To reduce exercising outdoors. But we need to help ensure these indoor spaces are also less smoky and safer places to stay.”

Ideally, Nicol says she’d like to see annual workshop rolled out in communities across the province, perhaps alongside other smoke and heat-related knowledge mobilization. She notes that a common trend during the sessions was a general anxiety about smoke, heat and climate change.

“This on-the-ground anxiety really fueled my drive to keep going with this project,” Nicol says. “I want to find people with other expertise and bring them along. I see an opportunity here for the on-going programing to evolve.”