Air Quality and Your Health

Whenever the air is hazy, or the smell of engine exhaust or smoke from a forest fire lingers, many Albertans wonder what effects poor air quality is having on their health.

The Air Quality Health Index (AQHI) is a tool that helps inform people about the present quality of outdoor air, and helps them decide how to manage their outdoor activities so they are not injured by air pollution.

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Join the 30-day challenge to MOVE with the air in mind

We all have to move to get to work and wherever we recreate. Why not move in ways that improve health, promote safety, save money and maintain air quality?

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Starting June 7, Albertans are encouraged to move with the air in mind once a day for 30 days. It could be as simple as walking to the library and borrowing a book on air or reducing idling time by parking and going inside instead of using a drive-thru. When these daily activities become habits and lots of people do them, everyone benefits. You can move on your own or with your family, coworkers, friends or teammates on your way to work, play, home or on a road trip.

Move yourself using human-powered transportation.

Move smart using fuel efficient practices when driving.

Check back daily or follow us on Twitter. We will be adding challenges each day for the next 30 days!


July 6 – Challenge #30

Mend your fuelish ways!

Keep your speed as steady as possible and avoid unnecessary fuel consumption and safety risks.
http://www.nrcan.gc.ca/energy/efficiency/transportation/cars-light-trucks/fuel-efficient-driving-techniques/7507

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Understanding environmental monitoring: what are limits, triggers, and management frameworks?

If you were reading along with the summaries for our North Saskatchewan regional planning sessions, you probably saw certain terms come up over and over again. One of these was the idea of environmental management frameworks. These came up in almost every discussion – but what are they, and why do we need them?

When we put together a regional plan, one of our goals is to manage the environmental impacts of industry, development, and other activities. Comprehensive monitoring is a key part of this – but until we interpret them, monitoring results are just raw data.

Environmental management frameworks help us set goals, and these give our monitoring results meaning. If levels of a certain pollutant increase, the objectives we have set will help us interpret what that means for our environment and for human health, and what kind of action we need to take. Continue reading

New app for iOS and Android puts air quality in the palm of your hand (or your back pocket)

Air is the most important thing that many of us take for granted every day. We all need a lifetime supply, but most of us barely notice when we’re breathing easy – although we notice pretty quickly when we’re not.

There are many Albertans, however, who can’t take breathing easy for granted. A wide variety of respiratory and other medical conditions can make it harder for our lungs to filter out irritants and pollutants. Young children and older people may also have a harder time breathing when conditions are poor.

When air quality goes down – because of wildfire smoke, industry emissions, urban smog, seasonal changes, or other things – these Albertans need to know, so they can limit their exposure and protect their health. That’s why Alberta has the Air Quality Health Index (AQHI).

The AQHI provides easy-to-understand ratings of the air quality in 24 communities in Alberta, from Fort Chipewyan in the north to Lethbridge in the south. Hourly updates, daily forecasts, and special alerts are posted to the AQHI website. If Albertans want the latest air quality info for their community, all they have to do is log on to find it.

There’s only one hang-up: what if you need air quality info when you’re already outdoors or on the move, and not near a computer? Well, we’ve fixed that. You can now access this info using another, much smaller computer – one that you carry around in your pocket or purse every day.

What is this app? 

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The AQHI app provides hourly updates and daily forecasts for more than 20 communities in Alberta (and more to come). It will give you:

  • The level of health risk associated with the current air quality in your area (on the AQHI scale of 1 to 10)

  • The daily air quality forecast for your area

  • Advice on how to interpret this information and minimize the risk to your health

  • Special community-wide alerts when the smell or appearance of your community’s air changes

Do I need it?

 The AQHI app won’t be useful for everyone. But if you have any kind of respiratory condition or other sensitivities to decreased air quality – or if you care for anyone who does – you should consider downloading it. That way, if you ever need the information, it will be as easy as picking up your phone (or tablet).

Is it compatible with my device?

  • This app is both iOS (iPhone and iPad) and Android (Smartphone and tablet) compatible.
  • We are currently working on a Blackberry-compatible version of the app and expect to launch it in 2014.

Where can I get it? How much does it cost?

The app is free to download; you can get it here.

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-stop, 24-hour Energy and Environmental Response Line established for Alberta

Quick – what’s the number for 911? It’s an old joke, but there’s an important truth behind it – everyone knows emergency phone numbers, because when you need them, you really need them. That’s why Alberta now has a single 24-hour, toll-free response line for all energy and environmental emergencies and complaints.

Photo of an emergency response mobile operations centre

When emergencies happen, the Alberta Environment Support & Emergency Response Team (ASERT) is ready to spring into action

Rather than operating its own response line, The new Alberta Energy Regulator (AER) has adopted Environment and Sustainable Resource Development’s existing 24-hour environmental hotline. Albertans reporting oil and gas spills, facility fires, and all other situations with an urgent impact on the environment can call 1-800-222-6514.

By combining two hotlines into one, we’re making it easier for Albertans to report information on urgent situations as quickly as possible – because the faster we know what’s happening, the faster we can respond.

This number is for emergencies only – if you have questions about the Regulator or its work, you should call the AER Customer Contact Centre at 1-855-297-8311.

 

Photo of personnel standing around an air monitoring unit

ASERT is there when environmental emergencies strike

You can’t predict an emergency, but the Government of Alberta is prepared for them.

ESRD oversees all aspects of an environmental incident – from initial emergency response, cleanup and containment, to long-term monitoring and remediation activities.

Whenever there is a release of a substance that may cause an adverse effect on the environment, Alberta’s Environmental Protection and Enhancement Act requires it to be reported. This can be done through the 24-hour Environmental Hotline (1-800-222-6514), which fields nearly 12,000 calls from the public and industry every year.

All calls are followed up, and when there’s an environmental emergency, ASERT is on the job.

The Alberta Environment and Sustainable Resource Development Support and Emergency Response Team – ASERT for short – is a group of highly trained individuals that lead ESRD’s environmental response during an emergency event. They train all year and are ready to be deployed to the scene 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. With the help of the mobile command centre, they can be operational onsite anywhere in the province.

  • They assess the environmental risk;
  • Coordinate the containment and clean up efforts;
  • Ensure air and water quality monitoring is done when required; and
  • Collaborate with municipalities, health authorities and other emergency responders.

Public safety is always the first priority.

 

Once the emergency phase is over, ASERT transitions the incident to regional compliance staff who ensure the responsible party completes all appropriate actions outlined in the approved environmental mitigation and remediation plans.

Affected sites must meet all environmental standards before they’re declared remediated. Failure to comply could result in the government issuing an Environmental Protection Order or other compliance assurance actions.

If you spot an environmental emergency, please report it to the 24 hour hotline at 1-800-222-6514.

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Next steps for joint oil sands program

Joint Implementation Oil Sands Monitoring Plan

Governments of Alberta and Canada take another important step in the work to ensure continued responsible development of the oil sands

It’s been just over a year since Alberta’s Minister of Environment and Sustainable Resource Development stood with Canada’s Environment Minister to announce The Joint Canada-Alberta Implementation Plan for Oil Sands Monitoring.

Today, both Ministers are in Ottawa to announce another important step in the implementation of this comprehensive monitoring program – the creation of a joint online portal that will house information and data collected through the joint monitoring program activities.

Photo of a scientist taking samples at a groundwater monitoring well

Taking samples at a groundwater monitoring well

Transparency is a key part of our ongoing work to ensure Albertans, Canadians, and the world, have access to environmental monitoring data related to oil sands activities. What’s being launched today is the first phase of a publicly-facing information portal.

The joint portal complements Alberta’s existing online oil sands information portal. Here, interactive maps and an extensive data library bring together information on such things as water use, greenhouse gas emissions, tailings ponds and reclamation, so that anyone interested around the world can easily access them via computer or tablet.

We encourage you to visit both sites to access a variety of information and data that’s organized for different users – from interested people from across the globe who want to look at overall trends, to academics and researchers looking for downloadable data sets.

A joint portal is just one of many enhancements that have taken place since the joint plan was announced in February 2012. Although the plan will not be fully operational until 2015, we’re already seeing results.

For example, baseline scientific data was improved through:

  • increased sampling frequency of air, aquatic life, and water;
  • broadened monitoring for contaminants specific to the oil sands;
  • new monitoring sites for air, aquatic life, and water;
  • consistency in sampling methods and analysis;
  • an intensive, integrated sampling program to better understand contaminant sources; and,
  • implementation of an expanded groundwater monitoring network.
Photo of the Spring 2013 Fact Sheet

Spring 2013 Update

You can read more about the many enhancements we’ve implemented over the past year – as well as future planned activities – on the Spring 2013 update fact sheet.

Alberta has several decades of environmental excellence to build upon – and we will use our extensive experience to create one of the most progressive environmental monitoring programs of any industrially-developed region in the world. Not only are we implementing a state-of-the-art scientific monitoring program in the oil sands, Alberta is also creating an arms-length agency to oversee environmental monitoring across the entire province. This work is ongoing and we are looking forward to establishing the agency in the near future.

We will be providing regular updates on both the implementation of the joint oil sands monitoring program and Alberta’s work to establish a province-wide monitoring system. As a key pillar in Alberta’s integrated resource management system, enhanced and transparent monitoring is a vital component of our ongoing work to assure Albertans – and indeed the world – of our commitment to excellence in environmental stewardship.

Through enhanced environmental monitoring, comprehensive land-use plans with environmental triggers and limits, and the establishment of a single regulator, Alberta continues to take bold actions to ensure we remain a leader in responsible resource development.

COPD Awareness Day highlights importance of good air quality

Online index helps Albertans manage respiratory health every day

November 14 marked chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) awareness day. As such, Albertans are being reminded of an important health management tool for people with COPD and anyone who helps care for them.  The Air Quality Health Index (AQHI) is an online tool that delivers up-to-date information on air quality conditions.

Air quality is an issue that affects us all. However, seniors, children, active individuals, and people with pre-existing conditions such as COPD are often more at risk from the effects of air pollution. The AQHI was created to give these individuals greater personal control over their respiratory health.

Fortunately, Albertans experience good air quality 95 per cent of the time, but we are always looking to improve. That is why in 2011, the Governments of Alberta and Canada introduced a modified federal AQHI to give Albertans timely and essential information to plan their outdoor activities.

Alberta’s AQHI reports local air quality in real-time for more than 20 communities, as well as predicting future conditions for a period of up to 48 hours. The AQHI works on a scale from 1 to 10 – similar to the ultra violet (UV) Index – to determine the health risk.  The lower the number on the scale, the lower the health risk. 

The AQHI also provides recommendations on how to minimize respiratory health risks and serves as an important health management tool for people with COPD.  The AQHI is available at www.airquality.alberta.ca .

Our friends at the Lung Association Alberta & NWT are an excellent resource for information on COPD.

 

AQHI Scale

 

Air quality and urban smog in Alberta

Albertans are fortunate to experience ‘low to moderate’ health risk air quality more than 95 per cent of the time – the best rating possible – under one of Canada’s most comprehensive air monitoring management systems. However, growth and development create challenges to ensure we can continue to breathe easy. This was the impetus for a renewed provincial Clean Air Strategy and Alberta’s endorsement of the National Air Quality Management System

Every year, the Government of Alberta posts a report on particulate matter and ozone management levels across the province, based on the last three years of data collected. In August 2012, the data set for the 2008-2010 reporting period was posted to the ESRD website, to provide important and transparent information that allows the province to better plan for managing air quality in the future.

The report alerted Albertans that, for a total of nine days, PM2.5 (fine particulate matter) levels, a major component of urban smog, were higher than the national air quality standards at two monitoring stations in Edmonton (east and central) within the reporting period.

The heightened levels were the direct results of several days of stagnant weather in the months of December 2009, January 2010 and February 2010, when pollution from automobiles, industries and other sources caused some days of winter smog in Edmonton. 

At the same time, we started using more sensitive monitoring equipment to measure PM2.5 and adopted more stringent national air quality standards.

In our ongoing efforts to be more vigilant and stay within the new national standards, ESRD, in collaboration with other government departments, is working with the city of Edmonton, stakeholders and industry to develop a management plan aimed at reducing PM2.5 levels below the Canada-wide Standard. 

A variety of options could be examined through this process, including increasing awareness of the day-to-day activities we might engage in, such as idling vehicles, or things like encouraging greater use of public transit.

All day, every day, Albertans have access to timely information through the Air Quality Health Index. This online tool provides updated information on air quality and helps people understand what the air quality around them means to their health.

Other Air Quality stories

Clearing the Air: Alberta’s Renewed Clean Air Strategy 
AQHI: What’s your number?