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Impacts of Air Pollutants and Smog
The quality of our air directly impacts our health and the natural environment. Ontario’s Ministry of the Environment, Conservation and Parks works to protect air quality through legislation, targeted programs, and partnerships with other jurisdictions. The city’s air quality overview can be found here.
Up until 2008, the smoggiest region in Canada was, according to Environment Canada, rural southwestern Ontario, along the north shore of Lake Erie. Here, ground-level ozone regularly exceeded the guidelines of more than 30 days per year. Reasons for this pollution included the high population density, consequent large emissions of precursor pollutants and suitable climate.
Industrial emissions have had a major impact on pollutants, specifically coal-fired generation stations. In 2001, the Province committed to shutting down all five of Ontario’s coal-fired generation stations. The Lakeview plant was shut down in 2005 followed by a plan to close the other four of the generation stations, which concluded in 2014. Some generation stations (such as the Thunder Bay and Atikokan locations) have been converted to use biomass as their fuel. Nowadays, most pollutants come from vehicles and transboundary air pollution.
In Canada, transportation is one of the main sources of air pollution even though cars are becoming more efficient in design, for example, newer vehicles have lower tailpipe emissions and other newer vehicles are hybrid or electric. In 2015, Environment Canada put in place new emission and fuel standards for vehicles. This also included reducing the amount of sulphur the vehicles were allowed to release annually, a decrease from 30 ppm to 10 ppm in 2017. Newer fuel standards in 2014 are said to ensure that by 2025, cars will use 50% less fuel than car models from 2008; while Ontario has committed to a 10% reduction of carbon content in transportation fuels by 2020.
Air pollutants and smog are, by definition, injurious to life and property. The primary impact in London from air pollution is on human health. Air pollution has shown to be a cause of disease, increased hospitalizations, and premature death. Smog can cause damage to your heart and lungs, and it can irritate your eyes, nose, and throat. Persons most at risk are those with respiratory problems, kids and seniors, and those suffering from heart disease, lung disease or diabetes, but even healthy individuals who exercise outdoors in urban areas may be subject to health risks. Seniors generally feel more the negative health effects of smog, while children are more sensitive to it since their respiratory systems are still developing and they are often engaging in physical activity. Even healthy young adults have a harder time breathing in heavily polluted air.
Air pollutants and smog are monitored and reported using the Air Quality Health Index (AQHI) with zero corresponding to no measurable concentration levels, to 1-3 being low risk, 4-6 being a moderate risk, 7-10 being a high risk and over 10 being a very high risk. AQHI is based on the following pollutants in our air: sulphur dioxide, ozone, nitrogen dioxide, total reduced sulphur compounds, carbon monoxide and fine particulate matter. For daily readings contact the provincial Ministry of the Environment, 135 St. Clair Avenue W., Toronto, ON M4V 1P5. Call 1-800-565-4923 or visit www.airqualityontario.com.
The Ministry has a network of 38 ambient (outside) air monitoring stations across the province. These collect real-time air pollution data. This information reaches the public through Ontario’s AQHI and as hourly concentrations of each pollutant. The Air Quality Health Index was previously the Air Quality Index until 2015. The AQHI and data collected from our monitoring stations are posted each hour, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. They also appear on Environment Canada’s website, www.airhealth.ca. Yearly air quality reports are circulated from the province.
There are two levels of Smog Alerts: smog watches are issued when there is a 50% chance elevated smog levels will occur within the next three days and smog advisories within the next 24 hours, or immediately if widespread poor AQHI readings occur and if weather conditions are conducive to levels expected to continue for several hours. London had a number of smog alerts in the past which has improved considerably. Middlesex-London Health Unit reports that between 2004-2010 there has been less poor air quality days. Comparing data from 2005 and 2007 to recent years, there has a been decreased amount of smog days.
The ministry handles a broad range of air quality issues such as smog alerts derived from Ontario’s Air Quality Health Index (AQHI) data monitoring stations to issue the alerts. There are municipal response plans, climate change and emissions reduction trading, transboundary air pollution, sulfur reductions, and US coal-fired power plant emissions. There is a national action plan which exists to control and reduce ozone depleting substances such as CFCs and HCFCs.
The Middlesex-London Health Unit (MLHU) publicizes poor advisory days and has various information bulletins on air quality issues. Call the Environmental Health Division at 519-663-5317 for more information or visit https://www.healthunit.com/air-quality-health-index.
The City of London also enforces London’s Anti-idling By-law. The bylaw prohibits idling of vehicles over 2 minutes, except for certain circumstances such as cold weather (less than 5°C) or hot weather (greater than 27°C). This limit was revised in 2008 from the previous limit of 5 minutes. According to Natural Resources Canada’s Office of Energy Efficiency, if every Canadian motorist avoided idling their vehicle for just 5 minutes each day of the year, we could prevent more than 1 million tonnes of carbon dioxide from entering the atmosphere.
London had 38 facilities including the City’s pollution control plants and W12A landfill listed under 2016 reported data, however only one in London. The ministry has said that London’s air quality is comparable to other cities in south-western Ontario.
The city has identified that most smog in London is from a culmination of small sources: vehicles, lawn mowers, and solvent use from homes and small industries. Use of electricity (especially during peak hours) can contribute to the air emissions, as electricity is produced by gas-fired power plants. Additional air pollution reaches us upwind from the United States coal-fired electricity plants. However, thousands of other smaller airborne contaminants exist including dry cleaning chemicals, fumes from gas stations, auto body and print shops, chemical sprays, gasoline or diesel-powered machinery i.e. leaf blowers, home, school, office furnace particles and products sold such as oil-based paint and pesticides for our lawns. In fact, some Canadian cities have started to ban leaf blowers during the summer time because of their harmful emissions.
The City of London’s community energy action plan beginning with 1990 based data as required by the province (found here). Energy use is a major contributor to air emissions. London has been a member of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities’ ‘Partners for Climate Protection’ campaign; Since joining in 1994, London has completed the FCM’s five milestones. Since 2007, the city’s energy related GHG emissions have reduced over 50%. London’s action plan for the 2014-2018 years can be found here. Over 350 municipalities across Canada are working with the Federation of Canadian Municipalities ‘Partners for Climate Protection’ campaign to reduce community energy use and greenhouse gas emissions (GGE). In 2019, will be preparing for the 2019-2023 Community Energy Action Plan and are looking to seek input from Londoners in the Fall of 2019. The City’s Air Quality Manager Jaimie Skimming can be reached at (519) 661-CITY (2489) ext. 5204 or emailed at JSkimmin@london.ca regarding the above projects.
London is also part of the more recent International Compact of Mayors Agreement (2014) which merged in 2016 with the EU Covenant of Mayors to create the Global Covenant of Mayors for Climate and Energy, the largest global coalition of cities committed to climate initiatives. The coalition is made up of more than 9,000 cities and local governments working together to achieve the goals set in the 2016 Paris Climate Agreement.
Air pollution at all levels can impact human health. Even with relatively low levels of air pollution in Canada, research has shown it leads to disease, increased hospitalizations, and even premature death. In 2017, the International Institute for Sustainable Development reported that air pollution is responsible for 7,000 to 14,000 premature deaths every year. Air pollution is composed of a variety of substances with most health effects attributed to smog. A number of health risks are associated with air pollution. Breathing and lung conditions affected include asthma, allergies, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and heart conditions affected include angina, arrhythmia, heart attack, hypertension, and health failure. Children, older adults, pregnant women, and those with existing heart and lung conditions are most vulnerable to the fine particulate components of smog. For more information, please refer to the Government of Canada website that details what the health risks are and who is most at risk.
The Ontario Public Health Standards states that one of the mandatory programs/services that must be delivered to patients includes environmental health. In the report Assessing Health Vulnerability to Climate Change, data showed that health risks are increasing for those in Middlesex Country and London because of climate change, and it stated that one of the risk factors is air quality.
While it is difficult to protect yourself from all forms of air pollution, the Residential Indoor Air Quality Guidelines are a great resource to protecting yourself from contaminants in your own home. Road traffic air pollution is a concern in densely populated urban cities, but the majority pollutants come from greenhouse gas emissions from energy production and manufacturing industries. It is important to check the Air Quality Health Index for your region and limit time spent outdoors on days with higher risk.
Exposure to air pollutants can affect people very differently. To see more information on how you can be protected refer to the website here.
Smog has also been found to damage forests, agricultural crops and natural vegetation. Smog-causing pollutants even contributes to corrosion of materials like rubber and stone. To see more information regarding environment and wildlife enforcement and how you can help refer to the page here from Environment and Climate Change Canada.
The importance of trees and vegetation is often overlooked. Even in your home, houseplants can support clean air. Trees trap dust, airborne particulate matter and ozone thereby improving air quality and human health and reducing smog. Since concrete and the lack of a natural ecosystem prevent trees from reseeding themselves in most parts of an overall urban forest, it becomes our job to continually plant new trees. Not only do they moderate air temperature, but through photosynthesis, their leaves take in carbon dioxide and release oxygen for us to breathe. Locally, ReForest London’s “Million Tree Challenge” has become a great success to provide support to the local community with tree planting. Planting trees is a proactive measure as we face the growing threat of climate change.
Examples of City projects include:
- City Hall is heated and cooled by London District Energy’s tri-generation system, the most efficient way to use natural gas (generates electricity as well as steam for heating buildings and chilling water)
- Since the 1990s, the City has used innovative energy performance contracts to make their buildings more energy efficient
- Bee and pollination gardens
- Protection of Environmentally significant areas from invasive species
The federal government makes public federal legislation, guidelines, regulations and incentives specific to man-made polluting emissions and air quality. Information includes documents such as: Canada’s Energy Efficiency Act, the National Energy Board Act and Canada’s Regulatory Framework for Air Emissions. The federal site outlining and information and protection measures can be found here. Canada is part of the Paris Agreement (within the UNFCCC, it’s sets goals to combat climate change), unfortunately with the current pan-Canadian Framework, its foreseen to miss the Paris Agreement target. The target set to reduce economy-wide GGE by 30% below 2005 levels by 2030.
The federal Canada Clean Air and Climate Change Act amended the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, 1999, the Energy Efficiency Act and the Motor Vehicle Fuel Consumption Standards Act (Canada’s Clean Air Act). This bill addresses and lays out national standards on air pollution as well as greenhouse gas emissions. Air pollutants from appliances (air conditioners, furnaces, heat pumps), which are associated with smog had been placed on a schedule of the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, 1999 (CEPA 1999) so control actions and preventative maintenance can be put in place to phase out and reduce these products. In July 2007, a national air quality health index was announced to communicate health risks.
The Canadian Environmental Protection Act and Ontario Regulation 419/05, provides a list of pollutants of concern subject to legislative control and management and these are reported to the National Pollutant Release Inventory. This inventory identifies pollutants released, disposed of and recycled by Canadian facilities.
The federal Natural Resources Canada’s ‘Idle Free Zone)’ provides fact sheets, resources and educational materials to promote personal vehicle idling reduction messages and campaigns.
The Ontario Ministry of the Environment uses stringent regulations, targeted enforcement and a variety of innovative programs and initiatives to address environmental issues that have local, regional and/or global effects. Responsibilities include protecting air, land and water to ensure healthy communities, ecological protection and sustainable development for present and future generations.
While the government of Ontario retains the primary responsibility for environmental protection, the Environmental Bill of Rights (EBR) provides every resident with formal rights to participate in decisions being made on environmental issues. An Environmental Registry provides public access to notices on new or revised laws, regulations, policies and programs through government ministries covered by the EBR. The Environmental Commissioner of Ontario is responsible for monitoring that our government fulfills its obligations under the EBR, including the registry.
For air quality, the ministry oversees legislation and regulations that set strict air standards, facility Certificates of Approval to ensure companies operate within their limits, inspections and investigations of companies out of compliance with regulations and conditions of their Certificates of Approval and education and informing the public on ways to reduce air pollution and protect themselves from the effects of poor air quality.
The province has a Toxics Reduction Program which encourages companies to reduce the use of toxic substances where it is possible for the health of Ontarians and for the protection of the environment. The program makes them look at how and why they use or create toxic substances. It also outlines what they must report and gives planning requirements. The program also gives people information about the toxic substances. Facilities are required to: report and track their use of substances including how it is used, created, released and recycled; and create a plan to reduce their use of each substance.
The Montreal Protocol — an agreement to protect the stratospheric ozone layer by phasing out ozone depleting substances — globally agreed that developing countries would phase out 90% of HCFCs by 2015 and completely phase them out by 2020. In 2016, the Kigali amendment was passed to phase down production and consumption of HFC worldwide (CFCs are already controlled under this protocol).
Ontario also has mandatory Drive Clean emissions testing for vehicles (once a vehicle is five years old) and diesel-powered trucks and buses. The ministry had an electric and hydrogen vehicles incentive program (EHVIP), as well, 5% ethanol in gasoline as of January 2007; which has now been raised to 10% in London. The ministry has environmental compliance reporting on excess contaminant discharges to air and water from industrial and municipal facilities regulated by the ministry.
As part of its commitment, the provincial government has updated its legislation (since 2005) on Air Quality (Regulation 419: Air Pollution – Local Air Quality) to protect local communities and reduce industrial emissions combining protective air quality standards with modern scientific methods and implementation tools. As decisions on air standards are made, the regulation is amended on air standard concentration limits for contaminants assessed using air dispersion models and/or ambient monitoring.
Ontario’s Climate Change Action Plan 2016-2020 includes: working on Canada wide standards for a low-carbon economy, creating a cleaner transportation system by increasing zero-emission vehicles, ensuring natural, agricultural and forest lands to be used efficiently to aid in greenhouse gas reductions.
A number of publications from the ministry are accessible to the public on their website. For example, the ministry‘s Transboundary Air Pollution in Ontario 2005 report and their yearly Air Quality monitoring reports (2005).
To improve local air quality, some easy steps are:
- Walk, ride a bike, carpool, take public transit, keep car in good repair
- Hold a teleconference or video call instead of travelling to meetings or arrange to telecommute from home as part of your work week
- Reduce the use of oil-based paints and glues, pesticides, air conditioners and gas-powered small engines, such as lawnmowers, chainsaws and leaf blowers
- Turn down air conditioners, turn off lights not needed, avoid aerosol sprays, don’t light up barbeques and reduce smoking
- Shut the engine off, even for short stops – one minute of idling uses more fuel than restarting your engine. Avoid drive throughs and park instead. Drive at moderate speeds and check your tires regularly. Refuel your vehicle after sundown when air pollution levels are lower and gasoline vapours won’t add as much to the problem.
- Even in winter, the presence of fine particulate matter in the air can cause smog. To avoid winter smog, reduce car use and turn off your vehicle when parked.
- Consider fuel efficiency and emissions when buying a new vehicle by referring to NRCan’s yearly fuel consumption guide which also includes vehicle greenhouse gas emission impacts
- Consider cars with reduced environmental impacts when buying such as green vehicles, hybrid and electric cars.
- Reduce energy use and learn more about alternative energy sources for your home. Keep your air conditioner at 25C+ or utilize ceiling fans or small fans instead.
- Do not burn leaves, branches or other yard waste. Limit the amount of wood you burn in your fireplace or wood stove. Use only dry, seasoned varieties of wood.
- Find alternatives to cleaning or personal aerosols that contribute to VOCs.
- Houseplants can help filter the air indoors!
- Write letters to media and politicians, consider joining a citizen’s committee to advocate for cleaner air in your community.
Write letters to media and politicians, consider joining a citizen’s committee to advocate for cleaner air in your community.
|Middlesex-London Health Unit
50 King Street, London
|Airia Brands Inc.
511 McCormick Blvd
|Manufactures the Lifebreath line to develop, manufacture, and distribute products that will improve the quality of indoor air.|
340 Sovereign Rd, London
Water and air purification systems.
|Lung Association of Ontario
18 Wynford Drive, Suite 401
Toronto, ON M3C 0K8
(416) 864-9911 Toll Free: 1 (888) 344-5864
|Ontario Clean Air Alliance
160 John Street, Suite 300
Toronto, Ontario, M5V 2E5
|Environment Canada, Inquiry Centre
Fontaine Building 12th floor
200 Sacré-Coeur Blvd
Gatineau QC K1A 0H3
Toll Free:1 800 668-6767
|Canadian Environmental Law Association
55 University Avenue, Suite 1500,
Toronto, ON M5J 2H7
Tel: 416-960-2284 or 1-844-755-1420
Did you know?
The province has a Electric School Bus Pilot Program (ESB Pilot). The Pilot will determine if ESBs can operate reliably and cost effectively across Ontario in all weather conditions. It will consider barriers to the adoption of ESBs by school bus operators, as well as the potential of ESBs to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and diesel pollution from student transportation.”