One upside to this summer’s lack of, well, summery weather has been the improved air quality. Small comfort, perhaps, but there have been only two smog days this year.
Last year, you may recall, was another less-than-stellar summer. But the air quality improved for it, with “only” 17 smog days, down from 39 the year before.
Although the weather hasn’t been overly inviting, it is in some ways a good time to get outside to breathe in the fresh air. It’s almost inevitable that we’ll see more smog in the days ahead.
It’s more than a little ironic that just as we’re itching to be outdoors to enjoy the warm weather – particularly necessary after the long, harsh winter we endured – the experience is lessened by the degrading air quality.
Although suffering neither allergies nor respiratory difficulties, I am certainly aware of just how bad the air can get. For many of us, however, poor air is more than just a damper on outdoor fun.
According to the Ontario Medical Association, air pollution will account for some 6,000 premature deaths this year, costing the province almost a billion dollars in health-care and lost productivity costs.
In a 2005 report, for instance, the OMA estimated the number of Ontarians admitted to hospitals with health problems related to air pollution exposure at approximately 17,000. That number is expected to jump to more than 24,000 by the year 2026. The number of emergency room visits, pegged at almost 60,000 cases, could rise to 88,000 in that time.
“We are paying the price for poor air quality with our lives and if we don’t take action immediately, the cost will continue to rise significantly,” says Dr. Greg Flynn, a past president of the OMA. “If we do nothing to tackle air pollution in Ontario, it is going to cost billions of dollars and thousands of lives.
“The cost of inaction is clearly much higher than any price our province could pay to improve air quality.”
Smog is a complex mixture of pollutants, mainly ground-level ozone and fine particulate matter.
Ground-level ozone is different from the stratospheric ozone layer, which protects us from the sun’s harmful ultraviolet rays. At ground-level, ozone gas is toxic to the respiratory system, and is the pollutant that has historically triggered nearly all of the smog alerts in Ontario. Fine particulate matter consists of tiny specks of liquid or solid particles that are suspended in the air, and contain soot and acids, which can lodge deep in our lungs.
The main sources of the manmade chemicals that make up smog are automobile emissions, coal-burning power plants and heavy industries. The toxins may be local, or from as far way as the U.S.: prevailing winds often carry pollutants from the Ohio valley up into the province.
Since polluted air masses cover large areas, and usually move slowly, the smog problem is not only confined to cities and industrial centres. Smog builds up in both urban and rural areas, blanketing southern Ontario, from Windsor to the Quebec border, along the Lake Huron shoreline, and as far north as Sudbury and North Bay. Smog episodes can also last for days at a time.
That’s why the haze of the worst smog days can be seen out in the townships. Although nothing like what you’ll see coming over the crest of the hill into Hamilton, for instance, smog is still a fact of life here.
We’re encouraged to be active – walking, hiking and cycling – but also warned about the increased stress on our lungs due to the pollutants.
A quick jump on a bike in the thick of traffic, even now, will let you know why that is. The heat and exhaust pouring out of cars, buses and trucks can be stifling. A bout of that makes you appreciate the wide open spaces and sparse traffic to be found on township roads.
Avoiding traffic will make your own life more pleasant, but the smog levels will remain the same. The key is to reduce or eliminate those practices that contribute to poor air quality. Driving less is an obvious choice, as is conserving electricity (some of the smog is generated by coal-, gas- or oil-fired sources). However, the barbeque on which you’re grilling up some steaks or the campfire over which marshmallows are turning an inviting golden brown also contribute to the problem: talk about taking some of the fun out of summertime traditions. Even creating that freshly cut grass I so much enjoy is apparently a bad idea, unless a push-mower was used to do the job. Gas mowers are notoriously dirty devices, churning out more pollutants than a fleet of cars.
Perhaps, as we (hopefully) enter into the lazy, hazy, crazy days of summer, it might be advisable to focus on the lazy part: park the car, park the mower and park yourself in a hammock, still an environmentally friendly pursuit.