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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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.

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?

Clearing the Air: Renewed Strategy


 

We’re very fortunate in Alberta to breathe clean air.  In fact, we rarely need to think about the air quality since we have one of the most comprehensive air quality management systems in Canada, thanks in part to the original Clean Air Strategy.

However, a lot has changed since the original Clean Air Strategy was released in 1991. An increase in population, development, and technology advancements have encouraged the Government of Alberta to shift to a more holistic and outcomes-based approach to resource management.  This integrated approach allows us to consider the cumulative impacts of our activities and decisions so we can better balance our social, environmental, and economic needs.

This is why we’ve renewed our Clean Air Strategy and set out a 10-year action plan.

Protecting our air is a role we all play and Albertans from across the province have said they want to be involved.  Many took part in the comprehensive Clean Air Strategic Alliance (CASA) consultations where they assessed air quality perceptions, evaluated issues, and identified key action areas.  Their feedback determined the focus areas seen in Clearing the Air: Alberta’s Renewed Clean Air Strategy and the Clearing the Air: Action Plan.

Safeguarding our air is vital to our health and quality of life.  The government commits to improving air quality management by ensuring resource development decisions consider the environmental effects on our air, land, water, and wildlife to protect and sustain ecosystems.

Clearing the Air: Alberta's Renewed Clean Air StrategyA sustainable future means having a healthy economy as well as a healthy environment.  Both can be possible with careful planning and foresight.  Regional air quality objectives will ensure economic benefits do not come at the expense of our air quality.  Innovative research and technology development will increase the potential to reduce and even prevent emissions.

Keeping our clean air is important to Albertans.  By having access to reliable information we can learn how our actions impact air quality and the changes we can make at home, at work, and at play.

By all taking part, we can ensure we continue to breathe easy for generations to come.  For more information, visit: clearingtheair.alberta.ca.

Additional Video:

Leigh Allard, the President and CEO of The Lung Association, answers questions about Alberta’s renewed Clean Air Strategy.

Minister McQueen tours northern wildfires

Minister McQueen on wildfire tour

ESRD Minister, Diana McQueen with Associate Minister and Peace River MLA, Frank Oberle, and Patrick Loewen, Manager of Wildfire Compliance and Investigation, travelling to the fire area near La Crete.

Minister McQueen and Associate Minister Human Services, Frank Oberle, took flight today to observe first hand the many wildfires burning in Northern Alberta.

The day started early with a briefing on the wildfires burning in the Peace Area.  So far this year, 70 wildfires have burned 6,124.27 hectares. 

Patrick Loewen, ESRD’s Manager of Wildfire Compliance and Investigations briefed Minister McQueen and staff on the high priority fires that are currently burning, including PWF 068, located 100 km NW of the Town of Manning in the Hotchkiss area.  Extreme fire behaviour and sporadic wind directions have made it unsafe to deploy ground crews.  An incident command team are working hard to set up a fire camp, helicopters and tankers are dropping water on the fire, and 14 dozers are working to build a dozer guard.  No homes or communities are threatened.

The next stop was to meet with the incident commander in Le Crete, where Minister McQueen was briefed on the fires and process to fight wildfires. Incident infrastructure (camp, trailer, power, water, communications) can be set up anywhere in province within 24 hrs.

Bill Neufeld, Reeve of Mackenzie County in La Crete explained that they’re experiencing the driest conditions in 30 years.  Two large wildfires in the area has forced a local state of emergency to be declared for the Wilson Praire area, and for Zama City, where residents were evacuated earlier this week due to extreme smoke conditions.  More than 300 residents are being taken care of at the High Level evacuation centre.

Albertans across the province are battling smoky conditions as smoke drifts from Northern Alberta.  Individuals with breathing difficulties or chest discomfort should consult their physicians.  Those with respiratory conditions, like asthma or COPD, should remain indoors, keep windows closed, and limit strenuous activity.  Visit www.airquality.alberta.ca to see the latest Air Quality Health Index information for your community.  Residents with respiratory concerns can contact Health Link Alberta to speak to a registered nurse 24 hours a day, seven days a week, toll-free at 1-866-408-LINK (5465).

Interesting fact: while recent fires are lightning caused, the majority of fires in the province this year have been caused by humans.  There have been 681 human caused wildfires this year and 108 caused by lightning.  But lighting season is just starting.

On an average year, 50 per cent of the wildfires are human caused … and preventable.   Properly extinguish your campfire by soaking it, stirring it, and soaking it again.  If you’re out on your OHV, remove burnable debris from hot spots like the engine and exhaust, use a functional muffler and spark arrestors.

If you spot a wildfire, call 310-FIRE (3473).

Keep up-to-date on Alberta’s wildfire situation by following Alberta Wildfire Info on Facebook, or @ABGovWildfire on Twitter.

Minister McQueen and Bill Neufeld

Minister McQueen with Bill Neufeld, Reeve of Mackenzie County

Minister McQueen at La Crete fire centre

Minister McQueen getting briefed at the La Crete fire operation centre.

What’s your number?

It’s hard to believe that it’s been over a year since we first launched the Air Quality Health Index (AQHI) in our province.  This week, we are pleased to welcome residents of Bruderheim, Elk Island, Fort Saskatchewan, Lamont, Genesee, Tomahawk, andFort Chipewyan to the online air quality forecasting system.

Albertans are fortunate to experience good air quality most of the time.  But there are times when smoke from forest fires or smog can make it difficult to breathe. For those who suffer from asthma or respiratory problems, it’s top-of-mind.

The AQHI takes into account common air pollutants like sulphur dioxide, ozone, and odours.  It even measures visibility.  Even better, the forecasting feature allows you to check out air conditions for today, tonight and tomorrow.

A simple scale from one to 10 helps you instantly know what to expect when heading outdoors.  Similar to the UV scale we’re all familiar with – know the number and you’ll know what SPF to wear – the AQHI ranking can help you determine if today is really the best day to train for that marathon or if you should just take it easy and stay indoors.

The AQHI is easy-to-use and available to all Albertans, so try it out for yourself at http://www.environment.alberta.ca/apps/aqhi/aqhi.aspx.