What hap­pened to our smog days?

Clo­sure of coal plants, weather pat­terns cited

The Hamilton Spectator - - FRONT PAGE - KELLY NOSEWORTHY

Ear­lier this week the ques­tion was posed “What hap­pened to the smog days?”

Some lo­cal en­vi­ron­ment au­thor­i­ties sug­gest the re­cent lack of “bad air days” is rep­re­sen­ta­tive of On­tario’s decision to elim­i­nate coal power. It could also be be­cause our Amer­i­can neigh­bours are fol­low­ing suit by re­duc­ing coal-fired elec­tric­ity gen­er­a­tion or per­haps it’s the in­dus­trial sec­tor mak­ing im­prove­ments and more fuel ef­fi­cient cars. Maybe it’s a com­bi­na­tion.

While we have seen a steady de­cline in smog days over the years, other sci­en­tists, in­clud­ing cli­mate ex­perts, be­lieve we just haven’t had the right mix of weather to cre­ate smog — the nasty­look­ing brown-green layer you’d typ­i­cally see in the sky.

“Be­cause it’s so com­plex, you can’t pin­point one cause of pol­lu­tion, elim­i­nate it and say our air pol­lu­tion is go­ing to be per­fect from now on,” said Bill Van Heyst, an en­vi­ron­men­tal en­gi­neer at the Uni­ver­sity of Guelph.

“Typ­i­cally, you have to have hot, sunny, stagnant air to cre­ate re­ally bad air qual­ity days.”

David Phillips, the pop­u­lar weather guru at En­vi­ron­ment Canada, said “we’ve had 13 days above 30 since May,”

but only one Spe­cial Air Qual­ity State­ment (SAQS) has been is­sued so far this year; that was June 19 when the tem­per­a­ture soared to 31.1 C.

Wed­nes­day, a day you’d think a SAQS would be is­sued, didn’t meet the cri­te­ria de­spite a tem­per­a­ture fore­cast of 31 C with a hu­midex of 38.

The rea­son? Van Heyst says it was the wind.

“It di­lutes the smog at a lo­cal level mix­ing it with clean air and that gives us a bet­ter over­all air qual­ity,” he said.

Smog hap­pens when ground level ozone (toxic chem­i­cals) and fine par­ti­cles in the air mix with heat and sun­light. The heat al­lows for “faster chem­i­cal re­ac­tion” and the sun­light “pro­duces the ozone” and if the air is still — the at­mos­phere turns into a pres­sure cooker. “It’s like a per­fect storm for smog,” said Van Heyst.

Hamil­ton has seen plenty of smog days in its his­tory; 2005 be­ing the “worst year on record” for air qual­ity, ac­cord­ing to Van Heyst, when 45 smog ad­vi­sory days were is­sued by the Min­istry of En­vi­ron­ment based on the Air Qual­ity Index. In 2007, there were more than 30 and in 2012 there were 18 and no ad­vi­sories in 2014.

It gives you the im­pres­sion our air is much cleaner since 2005, but is it? In 2015 En­vi­ron­ment Canada and the On­tario Min­istry of the En­vi­ron­ment and Cli­mate Change (MOE) switched from the Air Qual­ity Index (AQI) to the Air Qual­ity Health Index (AQHI).

Dr. De­nis Corr, chair of Clean Air Hamil­ton and a long­time air qual­ity ad­vo­cate (he was a pro­vin­cial air ex­pert at the Hagersville tire fire in 1990) said the new sys­tem for mon­i­tor­ing air pol­lu­tion is “more ac­cu­rate and strict,” con­sid­er­ing di­rect health im­pacts.

“The fact is, air pol­lu­tion doesn’t have any cut offs in terms of health im­pacts,” he said.

Corr be­lieves the re­sult of fewer smog days is mul­ti­fac­eted — there’s the elim­i­na­tion of coal-fired elec­tric­ity, “tight­en­ing up trans­porta­tion emis­sions” and a re­duc­tion in trans­bound­ary pol­lu­tion from the U.S.

“We’ve been mon­i­tor­ing air qual­ity in Hamil­ton for 40 years and over that time, we can brag that we’ve re­duced our air pol­lu­tion by 90 per cent,” he said.

But Van Heyst isn’t con­vinced, say­ing “we’re likely emit­ting more now then we did in 2005.”

“We’re con­tribut­ing about the same amount if not more pol­lu­tion into the at­mos­phere, it’s just dis­persed more as a re­sult of our weather pat­terns,” he ex­plained.

De­spite any im­prove­ments we’ve made or the weather, both agree we need to do more to min­i­mize the health im­pacts caused by poor air qual­ity. Fine par­tic­u­lates cir­cu­lat­ing in our air — the ones you can’t see be­cause they’re too tiny — are still caus­ing sig­nif­i­cant health is­sues. The lat­est data, from 2011, tells us that in Hamil­ton, air pol­lu­tion con­trib­utes to 186 pre­ma­ture deaths, 395 res­pi­ra­tory hos­pi­tal ad­mis­sions and 322 car­dio­vas­cu­lar hos­pi­tal ad­mis­sions ev­ery year.

“All par­ties; gov­ern­ment, in­dus­try, the city, pub­lic health, stake­hold­ers, need to come up with a fine par­tic­u­late im­prove­ment strat­egy,” said Corr.

Van Heyst agreed but added we need to be more ag­gres­sive when it comes to ev­ery­day de­ci­sions.

“Air qual­ity stems from our daily choices in life that dic­tates how or what the air pol­lu­tion is go­ing to be.

“In­stead of set­ting the ther­mo­stat at 23 C set it at 22. Peo­ple have been us­ing cloth gro­cery bags for awhile now, con­sider where you’re buy­ing food and trans­porta­tion — tran­sit is con­sid­ered to be a less pol­lut­ing method if enough peo­ple are us­ing it. Each lit­tle act like that, does have an ef­fect.”

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