Article – Climate of Change
‘The Air Quality Health Index’
The expression ‘out of sight, out of mind’ rings true when people are asked about Cochrane’s ambient air quality. If they can’t see any problems, they think everything is fine. But, when wildfire smoke blocks out the sun like a filthy campsite blanket people know that their air quality has been compromised. Then they can see it, smell it and feel the air on their skin. When ash drops from the sky like snow, people understand ‘particulate matter’ and know to stay inside if they have asthma or suffer from chronic respiratory illnesses.
Most of the time, we can’t see the fine particulate matter and the multitude of naturally-occurring and human-made chemicals that are present in the air we normally breathe. Like the COVID virus, some knowledgeable people know it is there but, like COVID these pollutants can’t be seen or felt to the average citizen. People who suffer from asthma or other chronic lung diseases perform a critical service to the rest of us, much like canaries in a mine! When they start to line up at health centers, the rest of us should pay attention to what is in the air we share.
Most of us don’t even know that our federal and provincial governments, often partnering with multi-stakeholder airshed groups, have been monitoring ambient air quality in Alberta for decades to provide information about health risks. They use collected data to make visible what is normally invisible in the air through the Air Quality Health Index or AQHI.
The AQHI provides real-time local air quality monitoring data and provides daily health risk forecasts for communities right across Canada. All people and especially people who are at risk can download the AQHI app which can be set to let the user know when a health risk from air pollution increases. It is critical that we all understand the AQHI. We need to learn how to use it on a regular basis to manage our own outdoor activities when the AQHI indicates High or Very High health risks.
The AQHI assesses air quality health risks and provides a range of indices from Low to Very High, on a 10 point scale. Low risks are assessed from 1-3; Moderate from 4-6; and High from 7-10. Any AQHI number above 10 indicates a Very High risk to health. Each number on the AQHI is also explained on federal and provincial webpages to help you plan your daily outdoor activities based on the health risk you may face.
According to experts, youth are more at risk to air pollution that adults. However, even when the AQHI is at 10, or High, experts say that for most children, it is still ok to be outside for short physical activities, however they caution that during High risk periods children should take more breaks and do less strenuous physical activity. They do caution that: “Children with asthma should follow their asthma action plans and keep their quick-relief medicine handy.”
When the AQHI is 10+, or Very High we all should take breaks if we are engaging in outdoor activities, which we should limit to those that are less-intense, like walking. If we want to run or cycle when the AQHI is 10+, it is better to work-out inside. Again, those who suffer from asthma or chronic respiratory diseases should follow the advice of their health providers and keep their medications handy.
Folks in Cochrane are very fortunate because, starting April 2020 and for the next six months, we will have a mobile ambient air quality monitoring station located within our community. The Calgary Region Airshed Zone (CRAZ) is bringing the provincial mobile air monitoring station (the PAML) here and will be monitoring for particulate matter and several chemicals found regularly in our air. To alleviate any concerns you may have, each of these measured substances is well within Canadian air quality standards and is rarely if ever exceeded in this airshed zone.
Every time the PAML is moved to a new location, it is recalibrated by qualified professionals to ensure that the monitoring data is collected according to industry standards. The PAML will provide hourly raw data that will be analyzed and will appear as our local AQHI number that we can access through the app, or on the CRAZ website: https://craz.ca
When you access the CRAZ website you will also find other helpful information about air quality monitoring in this airshed zone. CRAZ is a multi-stakeholder organization that monitors the air quality in the zone on behalf of the provincial government. Anyone can join CRAZ as an industry, non-profit, municipal, government, First Nation or public member. For example, the town is a municipal member, and CEAC is a non-profit member.
Cochrane hosted the PAML for six months last year as well. The data that was collected last time will be compared to the data collected over the next six months to determine if there have been any significant changes to our ambient air quality. CRAZ cares about the air we breathe. CRAZ members want to help us understand any public health risks we face due to air pollution as they lead the way to improving air quality throughout this airshed zone.
Albertans are fortunate indeed to have volunteers like those who have given their time and professional expertise to CRAZ and the other airshed zones throughout this province. Through their efforts, they are able to make what is invisible in the ambient air quality visible to us all. Too bad there is no such system to help us see and understand COVID – at least not yet.
Look for announcements from CRAZ in your local newspapers over the next two weeks and perhaps, remembering the COVID six-foot physical distancing protocol, you may even be able to walk to the PAML site to see it in operation.
You should also take note that Alberta Environment and Parks have free downloadable resources to learn about the AQHI on their website: http://bit.ly/2wBQfQz while the federal government provides Alberta-specific data through https://open.alberta.ca/interact/aqhi-canada
Air Quality Health Index
Source: AQHI Canada App at https://open.alberta.ca/interact/aqhi-canada
Article written by:
Judy Stewart, LL.M. Ph.D.
Barrister & Solicitor