Understanding Health Canada’s advice about wearing masks in public – let’s try this again

Yesterday Canada’s chief public health officer, Dr. Theresa Tam provided further guidance on wearing masks to protect against the Coronavirus. Her new advice was Canadians should wear a mask as an “added layer of protection” whenever physical distancing is not possible. In doing so, Dr. Tam reinforced that she was not recommending that people wear masks at all times while in public.

This Health Canada recommendations did not please a minority of MDs who are demanding that masks be made mandatory. I have previously explained why health officials did not initially declare masks mandatory and feel it is time to update my post to clarify why this new Health Canada guidance makes sense in my eyes.

Let’s start with what has been recommended. Coronavirus is primarily transmitted by droplet transmission and those droplets are best transported through coughs and talking. At a distance of about 2 meters your likelihood of being affected by a neighbor’s cough or chatting is considered sufficiently low as to not be a concern.

I have little time for those cough chamber results that indicate that coughs may go farther than 2 meters. Those tests were conducted in sealed chambers with no air flow. We live in a world where air is constantly circulating. Find me a store with perfectly still air and the cough chamber results may be useful, until then I will trust the 2 meter rule.

In a crowded transit vehicle, or in a crowd, keeping that 2 meters distance is not always possible. In those situations a mask should be worn. This is official Health Canada policy and is not really up for debate. When you can’t socially distance you should wear a mask. The question is how to behave when you have room to socially distance.

When MDs argue for mandatory masks wearing they imagine that we are all the Conscientious Mask-Wearer (CMW). The CMW wears a fitted mask that they clean/replace regularly. The CMW practices good social distancing and when they get home they take off their mask and immediately put in in the laundry to avoid it cross-contaminating the household. Most-importantly the CMW practices good hand hygiene.

The CMW keeps their hands to themselves in stores. They only touch items that they will take home with them. They wash their hands regularly and, this is critical, don’t ever touch their mask when out of the house. The reason for this is a mask represents a potential reservoir for viral particles. Every time a wearer touches their mask their hands become potentially infected until their hands are disinfected again. So to be a CMW you have to resist touching your mask and if you touch that mask you need to disinfect your hands immediately. Now I think we can all agree that we should all be that virtuous because in a perfect world we would all be CMWs.

Dr. Tam and our health officials don’t imagine we are all that virtuous so they suggest another safe alternative: the Conscientious Non-Mask Wearer (CNMW). The CNMW knows how to socially distance and avoids crowds when shopping. The CNMW knows to cough into their cough pocket (the crook of their elbow). They do this because the cough pocket doesn’t come into contact with other surfaces and isn’t a place you tend to touch. This reduces the risk of contaminating their hands.

The CNMW also practices good hand hygiene just like the CNMW, but doesn’t have to worry about adjusting a finicky mask so keeps their hands away from their face after cleaning them. From a public health perspective the CNMW does not represent a significantly increased risk over a CMW.

The person Dr. Lam and public health officials are most worried about is the Non-Conscientious Mask Wearer (NCMW). The NCMW wears a mask but generally does everything else wrong. They don’t concentrate on socially distancing (because they are wearing a mask so they are already doing their part). The NCMW coughs into their mask and then adjusts the mask because it is uncomfortable. This makes their mask a potential biohazard. After touching their mask the NCMW doesn’t wash their hands and then touches things with those potentially infected hands. When not in use, the NCMW’s mask goes into their pocket, purse or car (thus cross-contaminating those items).

The NCMW presents a serious concern for health officials. Their hands and mask both represent potential sources of infection. Anything they touch becomes a point contact for touch transfer to others. They will infect PIN pads and doorknobs and their mask is a reservoir of viral particles, ripe for infection. Since their mask went into their pocket/purse/car seat those surfaces are now potential sources of contagion for their families as well.

If the NCMW is not infected, but touches an infected surface, then their habit of touching their mask will transfer the virus particles onto the surface of the mask and will turn that mask into a vapourizer for Coronavirus. Because their mask doesn’t actually block the movement of viral particles (its weave is not fine enough) it increases the likelihood that they will inhale viral particles and become infected.

Herein lies the challenge from a public health perspective. The conscientious wearer and conscientious non-wearer both represent an equal risk to the public but the non-conscientious wearer represents a public health threat.

What public health officials also know is using masks correctly is hard. It takes time and effort to get it right. I train employees to wear PPE and even when their employment is on the line I struggle to get them to leave their masks untouched. Masks are uncomfortable and people simply aren’t used to them.

From a training perspective it is a LOT easier to teach people to cough into their cough pockets and not touch things. This is because it builds on years of training we have all been given since kindergarten. Health officials aren’t training from scratch they are building on what our moms taught us from childhood: cough into your cough pockets; wash your hands; and keep your hands to yourself.

As for the people online who repeatedly claim that it is easy to teach people how to wear masks correctly. I welcome them to wander through my local grocery store and see how many people are wearing their masks correctly. Ask the gent in front of me wearing the gloves (don’t get me started with gloves) who keeps pushing into my personal space while touching every item on the shelf. When you can convince me that we can teach that gent how to do it right then get back to me.

The public health professionals know what they are talking about. Wear a mask when you can’t social distance but when in public at a safe social distance it is just as safe to not wear masks. To be clear, if you see me on a bus; I will be wearing a mask. If the store asks me to wear a mask; I will wear a mask because that is store policy. But in situations where I can safely social distance, I will follow our health professionals’ advice and keep my hands to myself while keeping a safe social distance and not wear a mask.

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My review of “Planet of the Humans” – A Michael Moore documentary that does some things well and others really badly but is true to the Michael Moore legacy

Like every interested interested environmental observer, I carved out some time to finally watch “Planet of the Humans” by Jeff Gibbs (executive producer Michael Moore) and having watched it I came out with mixed feelings. The best description I can come up with is that, in my mind, it seems like two completely different documentaries shown sequentially. The first is a really problematic one on wind and solar energy (with a bit on population) and the second is an absolutely devastating critique of biomass/biofuels that reveals a lot of previously hidden ties between high-profile activists and the biomass/biofuels industry.

As a former academic, I predict this documentary will become a “must-view” for any advanced environmental studies class. But the viewing will need to be followed by a careful deconstruction of the work. Because while, contrary to the claims of its critics, the documentary doesn’t outright lie; it doesn’t tell the whole truth either. I have yet to see a critique that can point out more than a handful of true factual errors, which in a two hour film is something. Instead, the film treads a careful line of presenting examples, that aren’t really typical, but implying (without saying this outright) that they are typical. But then again isn’t that pretty much what defines a Michael Moore documentary?

If we are going to highlight complaints, then you have to start by discussing the whole “Chevy Volt” section. My social media feed is filled with reviews and blogs claiming that the Chevy Volt section is out-of-date and misrepresents current conditions. I disagree. That section of the documentary is Mr. Gibbs demonstrating his bona fides as an environmental journalist. He doesn’t pretend this section is current, rather he makes it absolutely clear that it is from the past.

What that portion of the film demonstrates is when others were mindlessly fawning over new technology he was asking informed and important questions. Is an electric car really green if it relies on coal power for its electricity? How much power does that array really produce? Is this concert really running off solar?

That entire section of the documentary was clearly represented as being in the past and so the fact that the Lansing solar array was an old one should not be unexpected. Again-and-again this introductory section shows him asking the insightful question when others were blissfully reporting pablum. For critics to complain that these historical clips somehow misrepresent the current status of technology completely misses the point of that part of the film.

In my opinion the problem with “Planet of the Human” is when it finishes its introduction and transitions to its initial anti-wind and solar phase (from about 18 minutes to about 50 minutes). That section is simply a mess. This is the part of the film the critics can really sink their teeth into because the documentary does a bait-and-switch.

In the anti-solar section the research concentrates on two solar facilities: Ivanpah and the SEGs. The thing the documentary fails to mention is that these aren’t your typical solar PV facilities they are solar thermal and concentrated solar projects. By concentrating on Ivanpah and the early SEGs the producers made a very deliberate choice: to look at the worst of the worst. When Ozzie Zehner says bad things about Ivanpah being not green, he is absolutely correct. It is heavily assisted by natural gas and as such really isn’t all that green. But if you condemned the auto industry solely because of the Ford Pinto then you would miss all the successes as well.

The reality is that any number of well-researched life cycle analyses demonstrate conclusively that solar PV installations can quickly make up the carbon debt generated in their production and produce effective, if intermittent, electricity. Moreover, the vast majority of solar facilities are solar PV and therefore most of the critiques presented do not apply. Yes, the panels do rely on scarce resources and are hard (and often extremely expensive) to recycle and building them in deserts harms the environment, but the life cycle analyses don’t lie. Solar PV is a a valuable source of low-carbon electricity as part of an integrated grid.

The arguments about wind are equally weak. Yes wind is intermittent and yes wind turbines typically are sited in locations that have lots of wind. But all energy generation has trade-offs and the life cycle analyses support wind turbines as well. Modern wind, like modern PV solar, makes absolute sense in a well-designed renewable energy mix.

As for that small section about population control at the 45 minute mark? I’m not sure what he was trying to achieve,but it was painful to watch old, privileged white folk talk about how we need to control population.

I admit, by about the 52 minute mark I was almost ready to pack it in and then the entire film turned around for me.

The next 45 minutes was an incredibly compelling story about the expansion and growth of the biomass industry and the luminaries of the Green movement who have facilitated its growth.

I have written a lot about biofuels since my first post on the topic in 2014 and unlike the solar/wind section of the documentary, almost every fact presented in this section was on point and consistent with my understanding and research.

What I didn’t know was all the extra stuff about all the high-profile environmental luminaries who have been funding, and getting funding from biofuels. The second half of the documentary more than made up for the first half. It was compelling and told a story that I thought I knew but didn’t know well enough.

I can understand why a lot of environmentalists are upset at this documentary because it really pulls back the curtain and what it shows is not pretty. Admittedly, I am going to guess that it cherry-picked a lot, but it is hard to cherry-pick if you don’t have a lot of plump, ripe cherries on the tree.

To conclude, I would suggest that not only does “Planet of the Humans” leave its viewership split, it also leaves me split. The section about wind and solar really annoyed and frustrated me and the section on biomass really informed me. I can see why a lot of high-profile activists would want it hidden from view but that very reason is why it shouldn’t be hidden. As I noted, I’m certain it will be mandatory viewing in Environmental Studies classes next year but it could benefit from a thorough re-editing and trim.

To summarize: this is a pretty much what you expect from a Michael Moore documentary. It does not tell the whole story, all the time, but it has enough of a basis in fact to be worth the watch. It will absolutely split its audience. A lot of people will absolutely hate it and a lot will absolutely love it. Once again, this is exactly how every Michael Moore documentary is received. The only difference this time is the progressive left is getting hit by the blows not the right.

Author’s Note:

An earlier version of this blog referred to another blog that had criticized the film while presenting information I recognized to be incorrect. I contacted that blog owner and he corrected his blog. Given that change the section of this article no longer remained relevant so was removed.

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No Rising Carbon Dioxide Concentrations will not make us Stupider – Confusing Acute versus Chronic effects of Elevated Carbon Dioxide Concentrations on Human Cognition

I am a professional Chemist whose practice includes occupational health and safety and risk assessment. I did my first indoor air assessment involving “sick building syndrome” in 2001 and have done countless indoor air assessments in the last two decades. For those unfamiliar with the topic, the big factor in sick building syndrome is elevated indoor carbon dioxide concentrations. As such, I was quite interested when I read the headline: Rising carbon dioxide levels will make us stupider – If allowed to soar unchecked, greenhouse-gas emissions will interfere with people’s ability to think at Nature.com.

I accessed the underlying paper in GeoHealth titled: Fossil fuel combustion is driving indoor CO2 toward levels harmful to human cognition (Karnauskas, Miller and Schapiro, 2020 pre-print here) and was disappointed with what I found. The paper really could have benefited from a peer-review by someone better informed with the occupational health and safety literature on the topic of carbon dioxide’s effects on human cognition.

I previously had issues with outsiders getting confused about this topic and four years ago wrote a blog post discussing the state of the literature, at the time, on the topic of carbon dioxide toxicity and its effect on human cognition and performance.

Where the authors of the current article struggle is confusing the human response to acute exposure to elevated carbon dioxide concentrations with chronic exposures. A quick examination of the reference list for the paper shows that the studies cited deal with acute changes in carbon dioxide concentrations but the article is purportedly looking what would happen with a chronic increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations.

As any health and safety practitioner can explain, elevated carbon dioxide concentrations represent a health hazard. As I detail in my previous post:

  • At high concentrations carbon dioxide is an asphyxiant that displaces oxygen and kills affected individuals.
  • At moderately high concentrations it has both short-term and long-term toxic effects.
  • At moderate concentrations it is tolerable as your body will adapt to the exposure.

For the purposes of this post we can ignore carbon dioxide as an asphyxiant (any concentration over about 30,000 ppm). At moderately high concentrations, carbon dioxide toxicity is based on the perturbation of the acid/base balance in your blood resulting in acidosis. The initial human response is cellular buffering that occurs within minutes-to-hours. In the continued presence of elevated carbon dioxide renal compensation occurs over around 35 days. What this means is your body will adapt to higher concentrations, over time.

Carbon dioxide is also a potent vasodilator and as anyone who has migraines knows, vasodilators are also associated with headaches. That is the context in which most individuals experiencing sick-building syndrome experience carbon dioxide toxicity. It is the short term (acute) exposure of elevated concentrations in poorly ventilated rooms.

The following references all discuss how elevated carbon dioxide concentrations (Erdmann, Steiner and Apte, 2002 Apte et al, 2000, Wargocki et al, 2000, Seppanen, Fisk and Mendall, 1999) effect human health. All point out that a proportion of the human population reacts poorly to daily variations in carbon dioxide concentrations. This is understandable since, as a vasodilator, it would be expected to have particular effects on people prone to migraines or headaches.

The reason students perform poorly on tests under these conditions is because their brain chemistry is being acutely effected by the vasodilator. People perform tasks less effectively when their heads are pounding and they are tired (the major consequences of exposure to vasodilators).

This is where the paper gets the science wrong. The authors infer that the poor performance, due to acute exposure, will somehow extrapolate to poor performance over the long term. Except, the human body adapts.

I had a long twitter exchange with one of the authors which concluded with her making this statement:

Our fundamental disagreement is that you take the adaptation to be fact, whereas I think there is a relatively small amount of evidence for it, so more work is needed.

This line was the one I found the most confounding of our exchange. The human ability to adapt to compounds like vasodilators and vasoconstrictors is well understood. The classic example of the latter is my daily coffee. Coffee is the other side of the coin to carbon dioxide but is a useful example because so many people are familiar with the effects of coffee on human physiology.

Any long-term coffee drinker knows that their body becomes adapted to coffee. You don’t quite feel right in the morning before your first cup and if you are a heavy drinker then going cold-turkey can be a real headache. I was a two pot-a-day drinker in grad school and after completing my thesis I tried to go cold-turkey. The result was horrible. It felt like my brain was going to melt out my ears, the pain was so intense. I talked to a medical professional who explained that my body had adapted to large doses of coffee and if I wanted to stop I had to wean myself off the beverage slowly over time.

Now unlike coffee drinkers, there aren’t many people who experience prolonged exposure to high concentrations of carbon dioxide. That being said there are two different classes of individuals who have undergone this very unusual experiment: astronauts and submariners.

Both astronauts and submariners spend prolonged periods of time in conditions where it is not possible to completely scrub carbon dioxide down to background concentrations. In the International Space Station (ISS) concentrations are typically in the 2000 ppm – 4000 ppm range and submariners typically encounter concentrations averaging 3500 ppm to 4100 ppm. What they found studying submariners is that during an 11-day cruise, submariners adapt to high CO2 levels, as evidenced by the significant dependence of respiratory disturbance index on CO2 during the final but not initial days of the cruise.

The strange thing about the Karnauskas, Miller and Schapiro paper is that they do acknowledge the existence of this literature based on this citation:

However, null or nonmonotonic effects have been found even in these demanding tasks for two special populations—submariners (Rodeheffer et al. 2018) and astronaut–like subjects (Scully et al. 2019). These results suggest that factors like increased experience with demanding cognitive tasks or physiological adaptation to increased ambient CO2 could potentially mitigate the harmful effects of CO2 on cognition.

In writing this they appear to miss the conclusion of the papers. As presented in Rodeheffer et al (Acute Exposure to Low-to-Moderate Carbon Dioxide Levels and Submariner Decision Making)

In conclusion, our findings failed to replicate the impaired decision-making performance reported by Allen et al. and Satish et al. during acute exposures to CO2 at 2500 ppm; however, our results are in concurrence with more recent research reporting null effects at low-to-moderate levels of CO2 on both the SMS test and on traditional measures of cognitive and neurobehavioral function. Overall, results suggest that there is no effect of acute CO2 exposure on submariner decision-making performance at levels routinely experienced during submarine operations.

As for Scully et al, 2019 (Effects of acute exposures to carbon dioxide on decision making and cognition in astronaut-like subjects) it reported:

at higher CO2 concentrations performance was similar to or exceeded baseline for most measures. These outcomes, which conflict with those of other studies, likely indicate differing characteristics of the various subject populations and differences in the aggregation of unrecognized stressors, in addition to CO2, are responsible for disparate outcomes among studies. Studies with longer exposure durations are needed to verify that cognitive impairment does not develop over time in crew-like subjects.

These two studies appear to contradict the Karnauskas, Miller and Schapiro article citing them. The cited articles clearly state that adapted populations show no detectable deleterious effects. Remember, submarines have operated for over a century and we have been operating in space for over 50 years. If the premise of the Karnauskas, Miller and Schapiro paper were correct then it is unlikely that submariners would be put in charge of nuclear weapons or astronauts would be able to safely operate their complex and incredibly dangerous ships.

If negative effects were to be observed then after 100 years of submarine operation we would likely have seen them by now.

If as suggested in the article “reduction in cognitive function score statistically significant, they were typically rather large—on the order of tens of percent decrease in performance per ~400 ppm CO2 increase” then wouldn’t that mean an astronaut operating at 4000 ppm over months at a time would result in a loss of almost 100% in cognitive function?

As I noted earlier in this blog, human cognition and performance are affected by rapid changes in carbon dioxide concentrations over short periods of time. Not the elevated concentrations themselves. This paper completely misses this fact. It looks at acute changes in carbon dioxide concentrations and infers that chronic changes in carbon dioxide concentrations would have the same effect on cognition. In doing so this article completely ignores that humans adapt to chronic conditions such as the long term changes associated with climate change. So, no rising carbon dioxide concentrations will not make us stupider.

Posted in Canadian Politics, Uncategorized | 2 Comments

How new puritans, petty bureaucrats and irresponsible activists risk eroding the public will necessary to fight Coronavirus

Watching and reading the news this weekend three stories caused me a lot of worry. Consider the following three headlines:

What do these three stories have in common? They are all examples of how new puritans, petty bureaucrats and irresponsible activists are working hard to erode the public goodwill necessary to win the fight against Coronavirus.

Like many of you I have spent the last month working from home. As the parent of three elementary school-aged kids, I have had to limit what my children are allowed to do while serving as parent and teacher during the day. Our family also includes a large, lovable dog who requires lots of exercise to remain sane, and this time has been hard on her as we no longer can take her to the park for the play she longs to enjoy.

Children are naturally social beings and keeping my kids away from their friends has been particularly hard. So we, like many, have taken to virtual communication as well as “block parties” during the day. This typically entails us chatting with the neighbors from the safety of the sidewalk and our drive-ways. The kids talking to their friends and sharing their hopes and plans even if they can’t share a hug or throw a ball together.

We know that Coronavirus is primarily transferred through aerosolized droplets that typically don’t travel more than 2 meters (as per the research Exposure to influenza virus aerosols during routine patient care) and in windy conditions can’t go close to that distance up-/cross-wind. Talking to my neighbours from across the street or over a fence, thus, represents a virtually zero risk option to keep community spirit high and provide our kids the socialization they need to grow into complete human beings.

Similarly, with all the parks closed there is a greater need for kids to have space on their lawns and sidewalks to burn off energy; get their Vitamin D; and simply be kids. With the schools and community centers closed, their empty parking lots provide an ideal location for our kids to ride their bikes or roller-blade with the understanding they keep their social distance from others.

This rather long intro brings me to the topic of my piece. How the actions of new puritans, petty bureaucrats and irresponsible activists can sap the communal goodwill necessary to maintain the effort to fight Coronavirus.

As a Chemist I remember the First Law of Thermodynamics which tells us that in a closed system when you ramp up the pressure the temperature rises in response. Our pressure release has been the ability to interact with our neighbours in a controlled and safe manner, entirely consistent with what we understand about the rules of Social Distancing during the age of Coronavirus.

H.L. Mencken once defined Puritanism as “the haunting fear that someone somewhere is having a good time“. During this pandemic there seems to be a thread of Puritanism in some responses to the pandemic. There are some who have claimed that the pandemic is a test from god or our penance for our misdeeds. These new puritans appear to believe that if people are enjoying themselves then we aren’t really fighting the pandemic properly. The result is that instead of laying off on the pressure they want to make things harder.

Let’s look at the “loophole” from the first story:

If you have been enjoying a beer on your driveway with a friend or exchanging pleasantries with a neighbour over the garden fence, Ottawa’s associate medical officer of health has a message for you.

Stop it.

Why does the Health Officer say we shouldn’t have these friendly exchanges?

The problem with beer on the driveway or a chat over the fence is that it can turn into a parking lot or backyard party, said Moloughney.

Even if you have been technically observing physical distancing guidelines, there are still dangers to these situations, including the fact that some people who have COVID-19 do not exhibit symptoms.

We know that if families are separated sufficiently then communicating over a fence will pose no risk, so the only reasonable basis for this argument is a puritan desire to stop safe communication between neighbours. It appears as if the health officer is seeking to make fighting Coronavirus a harder thing not an easier one. As if there is some added virtue to increasing suffering during the time as a sign of piety.

The second story really gets my goat. As I noted, because our local school is closed and the gate is locked to stop cars getting in, the school parking lot represents a great place for my youngest daughter to learn to scooter while my older daughter learns to roller blade, all under the watchful eye of our son who ensures that they all follow the social distancing rules. To imagine that a petty bureaucrat would give tickets to families making use of this open public space simply infuriates me. These officers should be looking at ways to encourage safe, outdoor play not using their “power” to play petty bureaucratic games.

Similarly closing parks for fear that people will fail to social distance completely loses the thread. I’m told they closed the Lac Dubois Grasslands in Kamloops with its thousands of acres of hiking trails. Someone who can’t social distance in an open grassland is likely a greater risk in a city than in an open park. So closing that grassland park will likely do very little to protect the public but it will force more people to use smaller urban areas to get their exercise…imagining that closing parks will keep people indoors is simply magical thinking. We need to make more space available outside not less.

To complete the trifecta I want to point out the opportunists; the activists who are grafting their personal, pet projects onto the fight against Coronavirus. I can think of no better example than the urban activist who decided to create a “social distancing machine” to make his petty case.

Watching him walk into signs and light posts and complain that this is an indication we need better urban design to protect us from Coronavirus was simply maddening. Does he honestly believe that an urban tree will give him Coronavirus? Does he not imagine that an individual not wearing a “social distancing machine” might be able to walk on the other side of the tree to maintain correct social distancing?

I realize he claims that parts of his video were “exaggeration” but it was much more than that. Social distancing in the city is about courtesy and simply taking your time; waiting until the way is clear; or taking another route. It requires lots of goodwill. Something he lacks.

As for his suggestion that there was no space, look at the two pictures of him above and below. Both involved him walking in the exact middle of the sidewalk/crosswalk. In both cases there was lots of room for people to pass in a comfortable manner. The only reason he failed to get full social distancing was by insisting on walking in the exact middle and demanding space on either side. His major issue was that he was being intensely rude, nothing more, nothing less.

As a thought experiment consider this approach with a two-lane road. If I drive down the middle of a two-lane road then no one can go by in either direction. Does that mean the road is too narrow for movement in both directions? Of course not. If I drive in my lane then there will be lots of space for people going in the opposite direction in their lane. This gentleman is not really interested in protecting against Coronavirus, he is simply riding on the coat-tails of the pandemic to advance his personal views on urban design.

The reality of our fight against Coronavirus is that we all need to work together. This pandemic is not a biblical plague set upon us for our misdeeds and making people suffer needlessly to fight it will only reduce the general goodwill and unity of purpose necessary to fight this thing.

Our local leaders have to crack down on the worst instincts of their petty bureaucrats. Tell them to lighten up on enforcing rules about using public spaces, when doing so causes no harm. They need to overlook harmless rule-breaking that helps build community cohesion and failing that, the powers that be should relieve these petty tyrants of their duties. We also need to call out opportunists who are using this pandemic to advance their personal agendas.

The truth is that to beat this thing we we have to help each other find joy in a time of sorrow and we need to find little happy moments in a time of confinement. Spending time with our neighbours isn’t wrong and having a beer on my driveway hurts no one. Social distancing has a practical purpose, to limit the spread of the virus. The point is not to socially isolate people or force us all indoors. We are all in this for the long run and that means making the best of a bad situation. It also means fighting the activists, the new puritans and the petty bureaucrats working hard to erode the social license, community buy-in and public goodwill necessary to win the fight against Coronavirus.

Posted in Canadian Politics, Uncategorized | 9 Comments

More on Coronavirus PPE – This time let’s talk about gloves

I am an Environmental Chemist. My work involves exposure to toxic and/or corrosive chemicals. Prior to my current professional position, I worked at the University of Victoria teaching first year students in their first university laboratory course. As a Professional Chemist now, and an academic Chemist then, the very first thing I teach/taught my staff/students is/was how to correctly use personal protective equipment (PPE). In my last post I wrote about one type of PPE (face masks) this post is about gloves.

Glove safety is a particular bugbear of mine. The reason for this is personal. During my graduate studies a colleague had a nasty accident thanks to not following glove protocol and because of that I spend a lot of time enforcing good glove protocol with my staff. In this blog post I want to share some of the lessons I have learned about glove use and provide some suggestions about the use of gloves during the Coronavirus pandemic.

Gloves can be your friends but you don’t need them for most tasks

Almost every health official on the planet has repeated the same refrain: good hand hygiene is an important way to protect ourselves from the Coronavirus. Virtually every public surface may be covered in virus and good hand hygiene will help protect you from the virus. As the Centers for Disease Control points out you need to:

perform hand hygiene (e.g., handwashing with non-antimicrobial soap and water, and alcohol-based hand rub if soap and water are not available) after having contact with respiratory secretions and contaminated objects/materials.

But in some situations, good hand hygiene is not good enough, that is when you should wear gloves. A good (intact) pair of nitrile or latex gloves provides an excellent barrier from Coronavirus. But gloves are not a panacea and used incorrectly gloves can hurt rather than help.

From what I have seen to date, most people are using gloves incorrectly and in doing so are putting themselves, their families and the people they encounter at increased risk. In the next sections I want to emphasize some of the rules you should consider when wearing gloves.

Always assume the outside of your glove is contaminated

The most important thing I want everyone who reads this post to understand is that you always have to treat your gloves as if they are contaminated. You cannot see the Coronavirus so you have to assume that the outside of your glove is covered with the virus. That means if you touch something with that glove you will have contaminated that surface with Coronavirus.

Yesterday I was waiting to pay for my groceries behind a couple wearing gloves. This couple had done all their shopping wearing these gloves [I had noticed them earlier] and they were at the cashier paying. They insisted on paying with cash (much to the dismay of the cashier) and the gent proceeded to touch every single bill with his gloved hands. Before that I watched the gent pull his wallet out of his back pocket with his gloved hand. He then collected his wife’s purse, once again using the same gloved hand and then pulled out her wallet to get change.

This gent was oblivious to the fact that every object he touched would be exposed to whatever was on the outside of his gloves. His pocket, his wallet, his wife’s purse, her wallet, all these surface were now potentially exposed. By wearing gloves and not following strict glove protocol he potentially contaminated himself, his wife and potentially his kids in countless ways.

What really offended me was that by handling the cash with his gloves and giving it to the cashier, who was not wearing gloves, he put her at added risk. Had he, instead, used one of the Lysol wipes handed out at the door, and not worn gloves, he could have protected himself, his family AND THE CASHIER. That sort of bad citizenship frustrates me to no end. This brings me to my next rule:

Never touch with your glove anything that you may want to touch without your glove

This rule is simply a follow-up on the first rule. If you are going to wear gloves then don’t touch anything with the glove that you want to later touch without your gloves.

In the office I am always all over my field staff about this. The classic example is their pens. My field technicians are constantly writing field notes and have pens everywhere; and where do a lot of people store pens when their hands are full?…their mouths of course. I teach my lab technicians that if they have to touch a pen with a gloved hand, then they should mark that pen and never touch it again without gloves. This rule leads to the obvious next rule

Don’t wear your gloves (or do work requiring gloves) in common areas or in areas where others will be working without gloves.

If you decide to wear gloves for your protection, you need to establish “glove-only” and “glove-free” zones. These areas should be clear and and you should acknowledge others by not wearing gloves in common areas or areas where others will be working without gloves. If you don’t follow this rule then you put unwitting people at risk. We share spaces with others and part of sharing spaces with people is protecting them. This is simply good manners and good citizenship.

In a similar vein, never wear gloves in your vehicle that you wore out of your vehicle. One exception to this can be where you are wearing “clean” gloves to protect an area from unclean hands.

This is often the case, for me, when I am coming home from the field and I cannot be sure that I was able to get my hands clean before getting in my vehicle. In that case I will wear clean gloves in my car, but in this case it is to protect the car from my hands and not the other way around. Once I am home I turn on the water in my sink and then take off my gloves and wash my hands immediately because in this case the INSIDE of the gloves represents the contaminated surface and I want to protect my family from my contaminated hands by wearing clean gloves.

Replace gloves regularly and remove them using correct technique

Since we have to assume the outside of our gloves are contaminated, we should change them regularly and need to ensure they are removed correctly. There is a correct technique to removing gloves, as depicted in the graphic below. If you don’t remove your gloves correctly then you will, once-again, defeat the purpose of wearing gloves.

Photo credit Globus UK

Notice how in the graphic the outside of the glove is only touched by glove and the inside only touched by skin. This is incredibly important because, as we remember, we have to assume the outside of your gloves are contaminated.

Wear the right glove for the task

Another important thing to remember is that nitrile/latex gloves are designed to protect you from exposure to germs and some chemicals. They are not designed for heavy use. If you plan on doing heavy work then wear appropriate gloves.

For our work, our field technicians are dealing with glass jars that can break and cause cuts, so they wear cut-resistant gloves underneath their nitrites. This allows them to get the protection both from cuts and from contamination. If you know you will need to use multiple gloves to complete a task then wear multiple layers of gloves.

Sometime when I know I am going to be jarring multiple soil samples, I will layer on 3-4 layers of nitriles. That way I can pull off one layer and still have gloved hands to handle the next sample.

Gloves only work if you are paying attention

A critical thing to remember is that PPE only works for people who remain aware of the reason they are wearing PPE. Remember that lab accident I talked about from my youth? In that case my colleague was working with organic solvents wearing all the right PPE when his eye got itchy. He reached under his safety glasses, with his gloved hand, and etched his cornea with the organic solvent contaminating his glove.

He had forgotten the most important rule of PPE. PPE is your last line of defense not your first. PPE is there to protect you because every other level of planning and procedures has failed. If you are relying on PPE then you planned your task incorrectly. Figure out how to do the job without PPE, then wear the PPE as a back-up, not the other way around.

To conclude, if you avoid touching things you don’t need to touch; wash your hands regularly; practice social distancing; and avoid places where crowd are accumulating you will do more to reduce your risk to Coronavirus than you will get by wearing gloves or a mask.

Because of my work, I have a box of nitrile gloves in my car and throughout this Coronavirus epidemic I have put on a nitrile glove twice. Both times were to put gas in my car because I have a bad habit of spilling gas from the nozzle onto my hand.

As a safety professional, I trust my good planning and good habits to protect me from Coronavirus, not unnecessary layers of PPE. By doing so I am not emulating that family from my grocery shopping. Their incorrect use of gloves put themselves, their families and that shopping clerk at risk. Gloves will only protect you if you follow good glove protocols. If you don’t you will simply lull yourself into a false sense of security while putting yourself, your family and the people you encounter at increased risk.

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Why public health officials advise against masks to protect from the Coronavirus – my thoughts using lessons learned from asbestos exposure

A heated debate has arisen about wearing masks in public to help protect against the Coronavirus. Our health authorities have been advising against general mask use but have not been very effective at explaining why general mask use is not recommended. I am writing this blog post to help explain, using my experience with protecting from exposure to asbestos.

I write as a chemist whose practice involves occupational health and safety (including asbestos and mold abatement, testing and monitoring). Masks and respirators have been part of my work life for decades. I have been fit-tested multiple times and for a decade was the guy sent out to fit-test workers; to run seminars on how to properly wear and maintain masks; and to train others to conduct fit-testing. I did all this in the context of mold and asbestos investigations, remediation and monitoring. This experience directly correlates to the Coronavirus pandemic.

To explain, asbestos, like Coronavirus, is a hidden killer. The asbestos fibers that kill you are invisible. Asbestos fibers are airborne and can get all over your body, but only cause damage if inhaled. Protection against asbestos provides a model for protection against Coronavirus.

As we all now know, Coronavirus is not a typical airborne disease. Primary transmission is understood to be via droplets (also called droplet spread). The current understanding is that a cough can generate thousands of droplets which typically travel no more than 3-6 feet before gravity pulls them down onto nearby surfaces. This is why “social distancing” is an important preventative mechanism.

A potential secondary mechanism of Coronavirus infection is from contact with contaminated surfaces or objects where the droplets spread. This would involve touching a surface that has infected droplets on it then touching your mouth, nose, or possibly eyes. Our current understanding, is that the virus needs to be inhaled to infect an individual so the eye thing is still hypothetical (no controlled testing has been done at this time).

Why Masks are Recommended

Let’s start with some simple facts. Masks, even home-made masks, will stop droplet spread. This is a good thing if you are an asymptomatic carrier of the virus. This is the biggest reason to wear a mask. A mask eliminates the direct air-to-air (inhalation of droplets) mechanism of infection. But a mask poses a risk of creating new mechanisms of infection (more on this later).

To stop droplet spread you don’t need a medical mask. Even a make-shift mask will catch the vast majority of infected droplets. Thus a mask will interrupt the direct transmission of droplets…which is a very good thing. As the health authorities have repeated, if you have Coronavirus, or believe you may have been exposed then you should avoid contact with all others and if you absolutely must venture outdoors you should be wearing a mask.

Why Masks are not recommended

Having established that masks are important for some, why aren’t they good for all? The answer has several parts but they break down to two biggies:

  • Wearing a mask can cause individuals to relax their social distancing while creating a mass of potentially biohazardous materials to be disposed; and
  • Wearing a mask creates whole new mechanisms of transfer (mode of infection) and leads to a host of issues with contact control.

Masks versus social distancing

The first of these is really easy to understand. If we feel that masks are going to protect us from airborne transmission then masks are more likely to reduce our attention to social distancing. We know, social distancing works and any action that reduces that action is bad. But there is a second issue.

If you are asymptomatic and are using a mask to protect the public that mask becomes a reservoir of viral material. If your mask is not replaced regularly it becomes a biohazard and if it is disposed of inappropriately it poses a risk to any individual who comes in contact with it (more on this later).

Mask provide a new mechanism of viral transfer

Now here is the part the doctors have been really bad at explaining. As I noted above, asymptomatic masks wearers don’t just shed virus via airborne droplets. They also shed viral materials when the droplets hit surfaces. But what is not considered is these masks become viral reservoirs. Cough a few times and your entire masks is now covered in virus. Then every time you touch that mask your hands get re-infected. Since masks are uncomfortable mask wearers tend to touch their face more than non-mask wearers. This mask-to-hand transfer mechanism negates a lot of the benefits of regular hand-washing. If you wash your hands then touch your infected mask you now have re-infected hands.

Then we have the unaffected mask wearer. Sure they are protected from direct transfer but should they touch an infected surface (from asymptomatic infected individuals) they run the risk of then transferring that material onto their masks (hand-to-mask).

Even if the mask protects the user from airborne droplets it does so only for a short time. Because these masks are not designed to stop the migration of virus particles through the mask (the weave is too large and the virus too small) if your mask gets exposed then it goes from being a protection to a source of aerosolized virus particles. The virus on the outside of the mask will get inhaled through the mask. So your mask is only of use if you replace it regularly.

To put this in a way more can understand. My kids love their vaporizers. They put the aroma scents into the vaporizers and then inhale the generated vapours all evening. An infected masks becomes a vaporizer for Coronavirus until it is replaced.

Not only is the affected mask a vapourizer, that mask then becomes a new secondary reservoir of infected material. This then recreates the problem we faced earlier, that impacted mask then becomes a source of viral particles that helps defeat hand-washing. When an unaffected person touches their infected mask (because the mask is annoying) and then touches another surface they have created a new mechanism of transfer (hand-to-mask-to-hand).

But we aren’t done yet. One of the saddest parts of the asbestos story was the effect of asbestos on the children of asbestos workers. Not only were the workers affected, but since the fibres got on their clothing, which they wore home, they brought the asbestos problem home with them. This was discovered when children of asbestos workers got lung cancer from exposure to their parent’s laundry.

This begs the question, what happens when those home-made masks come home. If you are using a bandanna as a mask your aren’t going to throw it away. Instead it will likely go into the laundry hamper, and the cycle continues. This creates a completely new mechanism of transfer (mask-to-family member).


To be clear, a lot of these mechanisms of transfer can be addressed. But each involves changing the way we behave. Learning not to touch our faces so the infected mask doesn’t re-infect our freshly washed hands is one thing we can learn. Another is ensuring that clothing worn outside goes directly into the washer (not the hamper) which would eliminate another mechanism of transfer. But ultimately the problem exists that there are not enough masks to go around and any mask that is re-used becomes a potential petri dish serving as a reservoir to re-infect users and their family members.

From my perspective it is easy to see where our public health officials are coming from. An individual practicing good social distancing ,while not wearing a mask, runs a very low risk of direct inhalation but in doing avoids three other mechanisms of transfer (mouth-to-hand; hand-to-mask-to-hand; and mask-to-family member). Moreover, since a make-shift mask provides little protection and an infected mask runs risk of the vapourizer effect while potentially reducing our desire to social distance it is easy to see why some health officials don’t recommend wearing masks.

photo credit from CTV news.

Posted in Chemistry and Toxicology, Uncategorized | 14 Comments

Winding Down BC’s Fossil Fuel Industries – another CCPA report that just doesn’t cut it

This morning I was directed to a new report by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA). As I have written previously, every time I get a notification about one of their reports, I hope that it will present an evidence-based analysis consistent with the quality of the individuals I know work there. Sadly, they always manage to disappoint. I could fill an entire section of my blog with examples of their disappointing reports.

This most recent report was written by two of my favourite foils: Economist Marc Lee and Public policy researcher Seth Klein. The report is titled Managed wind-down of BC’s fossil fuel industries: A just transition to a green economy and it once again crushes my hopes for good evidence-based public policy by this group. The report starts with the following text:

IMAGINE IT’S 2025 AND BECAUSE OF THE ESCALATING CLIMATE CRISIS, Asian governments have declared ambitious new climate action plans, including the elimination of metallurgical coal for steel manufacturing within five years, to be replaced by state-of-the-art hydrogen-powered furnaces 1; and an aggressive transition off of natural gas and toward renewables within a decade.

and honestly that was enough to cause me to decide to write this post.

Seriously how can one single sentence get so much wrong? Believe it or not, there is so much wrong with this first sentence that it will take over 500 words just to explain all the wrongness. So let’s begin.

Like many bad CCPA sentences this one includes a footnote. Let’s start with that. The footnote brings you to a Bloomberg report which says:

Steel could shed its reputation as a climate threat by using hydrogen instead of fossil fuels for as much as half of global output by 2050, according to BloombergNEF. The steel industry could adopt hydrogen for between 10% and 50% of output by mid-century given the right carbon pricing.

You read that correctly, the Bloomberg report suggests that if everything goes right by 2050 as much as half (but as little as 10%) of world steel production could move over from the use of metallurgical coal (coke) to hydrogen-based processes. Yet citing that reference, the CCPA authors argue that we should imagine (very apt language there) that 100% of Asian steel could transition off metallurgical coal by 2030 (20 years earlier than cited in the report and only 10 years from now). How they use that footnote to justify that claim is beyond me. But there is more.

It is entirely clear that the authors don’t understand the use of hydrogen in “green steel”. In “green steel” hydrogen is used as the reducing agent (a chemical not a thermal step). It does so by replacing coke. In traditional steel-making coke serves two purposes to generate heat and in the reduction step. In green steel, electricity (or ironically natural gas) is used to generate the heat while hydrogen is used for its chemical properties only. To make this completely clear, in green steel the furnaces don’t burn hydrogen! There are no “state-of-the-art hydrogen-powered furnaces“. A graphic of the process (from the Kusnir et. al., paper discussed below) is presented here:

The next issue is what the use of hydrogen means for energy use? In a recent evaluation: Adopting hydrogen direct reduction for the Swedish steel industry: A technological innovation system (TIS) study they crunched the numbers and those numbers were staggering.

The change implied for the local electricity system is a large one. The estimated increase is ∼3200 kWh electricity/ton capacity difference of which 2600 kWh are required for hydrogen production (SSAB et al., 2018Vogl et al., 2018). At 1.5 Mt steel per year, this implies 4.8 TWh/y in additional electricity demand for this single facility.

Look again at that energy demand. Consider that the Site C Dam, once completed, is expected to generate 5,100 GWh (or 5.1 TWh/y) so the EXTRA energy for one mid-sized steel factory would require the entire output from the Site C Dam.

You may ask where all that energy is going? Well that is another thing the authors missed. As described in the article Swapping carbon for hydrogen, and how the steel industry can do it:

A steel mill converted from coal to hydrogen that produces 5 million tonnes of steel will require more than 44 tonnes an hour of hydrogen. Not only will vast quantities of additional hydrogen be needed to support the steel industry, but it will also need to be produced using alternative processes. Currently, around 95% of hydrogen is “grey”, – that means it is produced by extracting gas from fossil fuels.

Yes you read that correctly, the hydrogen used in this process is typically generated from natural gas because it is too expensive to generate from water.

Now let’s stop for a moment. I am over 600 words into this piece and I have only critiqued the first SENTENCE of this article. In that first sentence alone the authors have:

  • misrepresented the time frame the Asian market could get off metallurgical coal;
  • confused how hydrogen is used in the steelmaking process;
  • ignored the incredible energy penalty of making steel using electricity;
  • ignored the fact that the hydrogen itself is generated using natural gas; and
  • omitted that natural gas is also often used as an energy source in green steel.

Notice how many of these omissions defeat the entire purpose of the article (you know getting off fossil fuels) since two of the steps involve natural gas.

I am not an expert on a lot of the topics in this report so I really can’t comment on a large proportion of this report. What I can say is that on the issues where I am familiar the information is either simply wrong or profoundly misunderstood. Since we are now over 800 words into this piece I will only do a quick run-through of some other obvious issues that I recognize as being off.

In the report, the authors gloss over how our economy is going to adapt to the elimination of all these natural resource jobs by suggesting that they can be replaced by service industry jobs….except service industry jobs build around the primary industry jobs. In the interior you can’t have service industry jobs if there are no primary industry jobs to bring in the initial funds that keep the communities running. You can’t keep a community operating by everyone cutting each other’s hair.

The authors gloss this over by talking about the jobs being replaced “by attrition” but attrition doesn’t pay the corporate property taxes that keep the community schools open and the community’s water running.

From a larger picture perspective, throughout the report the authors propose spending huge amounts of money while simultaneously cutting the knees out of the economy that would fund the economy. They talk about using public funds to create all this infrastructure then they talk about paying off workers to get them to retirement without explaining where all this money will come from.

In the section about decarbonizing our economy they come up with this one:

In addition, the provincial government should regulate that all existing buildings will need to be off gas by 2040.

I have addressed this canard in a previous blog post and put simply you can’t refit the entire building stock in BC in 20 years. I have also dealt with the energy innumeracy of the Green New Deal that serves as the underlying premise of this report. Similarly, it is not possible to make “a good jobs guarantee for those currently in fossil fuel industries” in an economy that has hollowed out its industrial and resource industries. These are promises we simply can’t fulfill.

My biggest laugh in the entire article (besides the “state-of-the-art hydrogen powered furnaces” was the suggestion that we could replace the fossil fuel industry jobs with

new investments around recycled steel production through electric-arc furnaces, perhaps located in or near a coal-mining community.

Seriously? Metal recycling has a number of natural limitations. Steel is very heavy and to recycle steel you need massive yards where the old steel materials (like bridges, ships etc…) can be deconstructed. Steel recycling facilities are mainly located close to water bodies because moving these heavy materials by water is the most efficient approach. When steel recycling plants are in the interior of a continent, it is because they are co-located with fabrication facilities that make use of the produced steel. No steel recycler is going to pay the huge energy penalty to move used steel over the coastal mountain range to our coal-mining communities to be recycled, nor will they pay the follow-up energy penalty of moving the produced steel back over mountain ranges to the ocean or across the continent to where it will be used.

So here we are again. Another CCPA report that starts with a false (nay impossible) pretense (eliminating metallurgical coal in 10 years) and goes downhill from there. It makes incredible claims and suggests alternatives that are either not feasible (a good jobs guarantee) or and virtually impossible (steel recycling facilities in the northeast). It argues we can pay for everything with the same money be it increased royalties, wind-down funds, infrastructure, money for communities and first nations and jobs. Except economies don’t work that way. You can’t eliminate primary industry and run economies solely on service-industry jobs. The numbers don’t add up any more than green steel can be produced in “state-of-the-art hydrogen-powered furnaces“.

Author’s Note

As a quick note, I do indeed know about the pilot project in Germany where one of the 28 nozzels in a steel mill was converted to using hydrogen which technically makes it partially powered by hydrogen. That would be the facility that expects to have upgraded the pilot test by 2030. That is a LONG!!!! way from Asia manufacturing all its steel using hydrogen in 2030. Moreover, given that Germany has closed (or is closing) all its nuclear plants and going over to coal, that hydrogen will likely be produced from natural gas, using coal powered-electricity.

Posted in Canadian Politics, Climate Change, LNG, Uncategorized | 5 Comments