Photo Credit: Emily Kabotoff

Healthy Communities Need Clean Air

Air quality in Alberta depends on several factors. These include the number of sources that emit harmful substances, the rate at which these substances are put into the atmosphere and the ability of the atmosphere to scatter (disperse) these substances.

Many sources of air pollutants can be found in our current patterns of energy production and consumption, as well as in our manufacturing industries and in the products we produce and use. Residential sources of pollution are significant including residential wood burning and pollutants from vehicles on the road. Some of the substances classified as air pollutants are naturally occurring and come from sources such as wildfires, soil erosion, volcanoes and dust storms.

The dispersal of substances is largely controlled by weather patterns, local topography, and the height and temperature at which substances are emitted from their sources. Land features such as mountains, hills and valleys can affect wind speed and direction, influencing and even controlling air motion. This can restrict the dispersal of substances.

From an air quality perspective, storms are a welcome weather event. Wind, rain and snow storms are sometimes called scrubbers because they help clear out and disperse substances of concern.

Wildfire Impacts on Air Quality

The frequency and intensity of Canadian wildfires is increasing due to factors including global climate change. These fires can cause extreme smoke pollution that can cause adverse health affects. Wildfire smoke is not healthy to breath. It contains particulate matter and chemicals that can impact respiratory and cardiac conditions.

Long term health risks can include coughing, lung inflammation and lung problems. Short term risks include irritation of eyes and throat and difficulty breathing. Particularly at risk are young children, elderly adults, pregnant women, those with chronic heart and lung issues and people conducting strenuous work or sport activities outdoors.

Monitor your heath and the health of those around you. Contact your health care provider with any concerns. Follow air quality reports and the AQHI for your area to stay informed.

Seasonal Impacts on Air Quality

In the winter, cold temperatures and stagnant air can create a build-up of substances near the ground, particularly during a weather phenomenon called temperature inversions. In other seasons or weather conditions, warm air sits near the ground and the air can rise easily and carry away pollutants.

In a temperature inversion, cold air is trapped near the ground by a layer of warm air. The warm air acts like a lid, holding these substances down. During a temperature inversion, smoke from chimneys, exhaust fumes from vehicles and pollutants coming from other sources can’t rise. In those conditions, carbon monoxide can reach unhealthy levels.

In the summer, hot, calm weather conditions can cause ground level ozone to form and cause photochemical smog. This smog can reduce visibility and trigger breathing difficulties for some people. The ozone is a result of a chemical reaction between nitrogen oxides and volatile hydrocarbons that are exposed to sunlight.