In the summer months it is not unusual to notice that the sky is a little hazier and the smell of smoke lingers in the air. Forest fires are a common occurrence during the Western Canadian summer and degrade air quality throughout our province. Smoke and ash from 2016’s Fort McMurray fire reached thousands of kilometres away – even as far as the U.K. and Spain.
While a devastating fire can make the far-reaching impact of pollution obvious, consistent emissions from our homes, cars, and industry regularly affect air quality here at home. Fortunately, there is a comprehensive system in place to monitor and address these emissions so air quality is maintained at an acceptable standard.
Nation-wide standards implemented
In 2012, the Canadian Council of Ministers for the Environment agreed to develop nation-wide air quality standards as part of the new Canada-wide Air Quality Management System. The Canadian Ambient Air Quality Standards, or CAAQS, were developed by the council and were based off the effects pollutants have on human health and the health of our ecosystem.
The CAAQS were developed to manage human emissions within a province, so the impact of out-of-province pollution and emissions from natural sources like forest fires is removed from air quality assessments in order to focus on emissions that can be directly managed.
There are CAAQS standards for three major pollutants:
- Ground-level ozone
- Fine particulate matter
- Sulphur dioxide
Standards for nitrogen dioxide are being developed.
Ozone: ozone plays an important role higher up in the Earth’s atmosphere by absorbing dangerous radiation, closer to the surface it poses serious risks to the health of humans, our crops and our forests. This ground-level ozone is produced when pollutants like nitrogen dioxide react with sunlight.
Fine Particulate Matter (PM2.5): Fine particulate matter is an airborne particle less than 2.5 micrometres in diameter – about one-twentieth the thickness of a human hair! PM2.5 is released by natural events such as forest fires, and from human-made sources such as vehicle exhaust and industrial processes.
The CAAQS standards for ground-level ozone and fine particulate matter (PM2.5) are:
Parts per billion (ppb): A measurement of how many particles there are per 1 billion air molecules.
µg/m3: A microgram (one millionth of a gram) per cubic metre, it refers to the mass of pollutants per cubic metre of air.
Averaging time: Refers to the calculations made from air quality tests based on the test’s length and how the data is averaged.
Sulphur dioxide: Sulphur dioxide is a dangerous by-product of the combustion of fuels containing sulphur. Fossil fuel refining, metal manufacturing, and power generation are all sources of sulphur dioxide. Its CAAQS are:
An air quality standard is more than a single number that separates acceptable air quality from unacceptable air quality; it is a progression of four management levels. Values called thresholds divide these levels and mark when an air zone moves up or down a level as pollutant concentration gradually rises or falls.
Management Levels and Actions
To manage these standards in the long-term, the CAAQS’s level and threshold model is used to plan for more rigorous management action as air quality worsens.
Green: No additional action on emissions is required; scientists will continue to monitor air quality as normal to ensure air stays clean.
Yellow: Focus on preventing further air quality deterioration. Actions may include increasing air quality monitoring to find the source of the pollutants, education campaigns to promote simple actions that can improve air quality, or working with communities and companies to improve transportation plans and manufacturing standards.
Orange: Provincial government and stakeholders develop and implement a plan which includes more stringent actions to improve air quality and prevent the exceedance of the air quality standards.
Red: More stringent action will be taken which may include introducing tougher emission standards or restricting new emission sources to reduce pollutant concentrations back below the CAAQS limit.
You can head to Alberta’s air quality map and use the parameters tab to discover the current concentrations of these pollutants (and many more) in your area.
What does it all mean?
Because air quality affects us all, it’s important that we each take steps to reduce our contributions to pollution. Even the simplest measures at home, at work, or while driving can help improve air quality. By reducing electricity and natural gas use, by using energy-efficient lights and appliances, and by eliminating poor driving habits, we can help maintain and improve our air quality.
Although we are unable to control the emissions from sources like forest fires, the smallest step by one person is a good step towards better air. The CAAQS standards are important tools with which we can monitor our air, but it’s only through positive action that we can keep it clean and healthy.