Breathing easy: how we monitor air quality in Alberta

Take good, clean air away and what else matters? Not much. That’s why it’s so important for us to be able to measure and judge the quality of the air throughout the province – and pass that information on to you.

We’ve talked a lot before about Alberta’s Air Quality Health Index – that’s the AQHI. Many Albertans now know they can use this tool when they need to know how air quality is changing (due to weather, forest fire, industry, and human activity) and how it may impact their health. But in an effort to make things easy to understand, what we don’t talk about much is how the numbers in the index are produced – how we monitor Alberta’s air quality.

Photo of a smoke plume from a wildfire.

Wildfire can have a huge impact on air quality through the summer season.

We’ve heard from a few concerned Albertans recently about a third-party study on air quality that was done in the Industrial Heartland. We understand this concern, and we want to make sure that it’s easy to understand how our monitoring works – both in the heartland, and across the province.

 What makes for good monitoring? 

The goal of air quality monitoring is simple: we want to be able to measure pollutants caused by industrial activity, forest fire, and

Photo of a cityscape.

Human activity – commercial development, transport, and just living – also has a big impact on the air we breathe.

other factors – and take action when they reach levels that might impact human or ecosystem health. But because pollutants will have different concentrations in different areas – in particular, they’ll be most concentrated at their sources – we need to make sure we measure widely, and measure often.

Although we pay particular attention to areas where people live and work, we sample a wide range of sites throughout the entire province – with about 160 air quality stations in all. These include:

  • Five stations operated by our department
  • 56 stations operated by independent, non-profit partner organizations
  • 100 facility-specific stations, funded and operated by industry. Government receives info from these stations monthly and annually – and companies are responsible for alerting government immediately if pollutant concentrations hit certain limits. All Albertans can check out the operating requirements of any facility right here.

The importance of setting limits: finding signal in noise

Our stations monitor more than 30 compounds – many on an hourly basis. Once we have the numbers, we need some way to judge whether the pollutant levels we’ve measured are acceptable – that’s where the limits we’ve set come into play. The presence of small amounts of pollutants in the atmosphere is expected, and pretty much unavoidable. If we didn’t have these limits, our monitoring numbers would be meaningless – we wouldn’t know what our data meant.

Photo of an industrial site

Good industrial development requires good air quality monitoring – and strict limits that tell us what our results mean.

 Crunching the numbers

Let’s take an example that there’s been quite a bit of discussion about lately – benzene. Here’s how we get the info we need:

  • We have established ‘objectives’ (or limits) for both the average benzene concentration we tend to see over an hour, and how those concentrations average out over the course of a whole year. The average hourly concentration limit tends to be higher than the annual limit; it’s produced from a smaller sample size, so numbers that are way out of the ordinary make a bigger difference. You can find a (pretty technical) overview of our ambient air quality objectives here.
  • Our one hour average benzene objective is 30 micrograms per cubic metre. Our annual average benzene concentration is 3 micrograms per cubic metre.
  • Benezene is monitored  in the heartland at the Scotford station (as well as at several sites in Edmonton and Calgary). From 2011 to today, our hourly benzene limit was only exceeded once, and levels were well below our annual average limits for both 2011 and 2012. 

 The numbers behind the AQHI

 The AQHI shows how our monitoring results compare with the limits we’ve set for pollutants with the greatest impact on human health. If actual pollutant levels are well below maximums, the AQHI assigns its lowest-risk rating. Communities in Alberta receive this rating 94 per cent of the time – and when limits are exceeded, or an exceptional event (like the June flood) poses an exceptional risk, we take action – targeting the source of pollutants. When we need to, we can also add more monitoring, so we have more information about what we’re dealing with.

Need more info? Please get in touch

The bottom line: we want you to breathe easy. If you have concerns or questions about the way your air is monitored, you can get in touch with us – in the comments, on Twitter, or by calling us at 310-ESRD (3773) – and we’ll get you the info you need.

One thought on “Breathing easy: how we monitor air quality in Alberta

  1. I have spoken to Barry in CN’s public inquiries office relative to the issue of the air quality in the near vicinity of the new tranload facility recently placed into operations at Whitecourt Alberta.
    The air emissions, I believe, originate at this facility are noxious and on some occasions actually make a person feel nauseous. Given we live within a mile of the facility and no public consultations occurred I feel that our quality of life has been degraded by the operation of the facility and that CN has installed without input from the public.

    I am not opposed to the advancement of business and opportunities for Whitecourt to diversify their economy, in fact I fully support step out concepts in development planning , industry diversification and business development to enable individuals in communities to have choices in the employers. CN has a moral obligation to ensure the public needs are meet while they exercise their historical right to develop assets and business in the communities we live, without development planners and local municipal government engagement. The municipal government is elected to represent the people and ensure the people of the community are represented to a broader audience of provincial and federal agencies and organizations and the rights of individuals are not affected by groups or organizations in general.

    I have spoken to CN public inquires three times , On the first call Barry indicated he would follow up and determine the degree of CN’s involvement , on the second discussion he indicated it was not a CN asset and I would have search elsewhere for my solution. That prompted me to go to the Municipal district of Woodland County and the Town of Whitecourt administration /development planners. The facility is located within the Town of Whitecourt; during that interface I could only learn that it was a CN facility and that CN approached the town as a courtesy and explained what they were planning to install but respectfully declined filing a development application. The lack of a development planning record made the name of the CN representative unavailable as it was not part of the public record. My third call to CN suggested a written note outlining my concern and providing the issue to Public Affairs. To that end I asked that CN
    1. Establish the air quality at the tranloading facility and near area locations during the loading of a rail car / truck transports, long duration tests (multiple continuous days) and at specific atmospheric conditions such as morning and evenings. If possible test the results against the baseline performed as part of your internal socioeconomic impact assessment / previous environmental surveys. If that data is not available work with the town of Whitecourt and Millar Western for any available background / historical data
    2. Meet with the public from both the town of Whitecourt and Woodlands County to discuss the findings and what if anything CN believes can be done about the odors. This open communication and transparent business environment should be an underpinning value at CN to ensure that, while Federally regulated, CN behaves like a responsible member of our communities; no different than private enterprises.

    I also asked, if possible, to have a copy of the process flow drawings for the facility including any pollution abatement equipment installed to prevent noxious odors especially hydrocarbon emissions.

    I believe Alberta envirnment should be aware of this facility, and take necessarty steps to ensure the CN facility is meeting its obligations as a member of the Whitecourt business community.

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