Three years after Red Deer was revealed to have the worst air quality in Canada, the provincial government and multi-stakeholder groups are still working to turn things around.
The Alberta Environment and Parks department has been researching to find out what makes up the fine particulate matter that, in a Canadian Ambient Air Quality Standards report from 2011 to 2013, showed the Red Deer region had exceeded national standards.
“According to Health Canada there is no safe threshold for fine particulate matter,” said Maxwell Mazur, senior air quality specialist for Alberta Environment and Parks —yet four other Alberta regions, around the Athabasca and the North and South Saskatchewan Rivers, came close to exceeding national standards.
“Tentative” early results of the provincial studies indicate nitrogen dioxide and volatile compounds, associated with industry, make up a lot of the fine particulate matter in the Red Deer region. “It confirms our hypothesis” that this is people-caused pollution, added Mazur.
Clean-air initiatives are being undertaken by municipal, industry and government officials. Mazur said some examples of “actions” include the creation of vehicle idle-free zones, more awareness programs about the harmful effect of idling, and more rural public transportation routes.
At the urging of Alberta’s Energy Regulator, many industries in the region have also committed to looking for more emission reductions opportunities and leak detection and repair, he added.
While higher provincial emissions regulations could be the next logical step, Mazur said this will have to be done gradually, over a longer period.
“We want to lower emissions, always, but we have to do it with a bit of tact,” he said, considering the investment industries have made in Alberta infrastructure and the need to stay competitive with regional competitors.
While it might seem baffling that Central Alberta, with its blue skies, often has worse air quality than places like Hamilton or Toronto, Mazur said geography and climate appear to be contributing factors.
Red Deer sits in a bowl, between river valleys — as does Edmonton, which also has high levels of particulate matter. Both cities have very cold winters, with inversions. Mazur said this is when a layer of cold air is trapped along the ground by a higher layer of warmer air. Pollution can’t disperse but remains close to the ground, in the air we breathe.
Because meteorological effects play a big role in Red Deer’s high readings of fine particulate matter, Mazur said it’s hard to get a solid idea yet of whether air quality is really improving.
There were few inversions over the past few winters, but then there was a long one last March, which will send fine particulate readings soaring once again.
So do Central Albertans need to be concerned about the air they breathe? On certain days, they might want to spend more time indoors — especially residents with respiratory problems, said Mazur, who noted Alberta Environment usually releases air quality advisories. He also advises checking the Air Quality Health Index at weather.gc.ca.