Residents of Saint John, a city that is home to an oil refinery, pulp and paper mill, factories and manufacturing plants, have a new way to help protect themselves from the harmful effects of pollution.

The air quality health index was introduced to the city on Wednesday for as a pilot project by the federal and provincial governments.

New Brunswick Health Minister Michael Murphy said the system will provide air quality reports and give people information on how air quality may affect their health according to their risk level.

"Because it measures multiple pollutants, the air quality health index is the first of its kind in the world. This is what makes it different than the index of the quality of the air that New Brunswick currently uses to measure air quality," Murphy said.  

"The air quality health index relates to health risk with local pollution levels and is easy to use. The index is measured on a number and a colour scale of one to 10 plus, and labels the health risk as low, moderate, high and very high. The lower the number, the better the air; the higher the number, the greater the health risk."

Air quality data will be collected hourly from several monitoring stations operated in Saint John by the Department of the Environment.

"Based on how their bodies reacts to different levels, individuals and caregivers can decide as to what steps they should take to protect their health on a particular day or hour. This may mean reducing or rescheduling outdoor physical activities, or monitoring symptoms more closely," Murphy said.

"Once Saint John residents know what each index level means for them, they'll be able to breathe easier."

In 2006, persistent air pollution in Saint John was blamed for blackening the roof of one of the city's most recognizable buildings — the 8,000-seat Harbour Station, the city's primary entertainment venue.

Gordon Dalzell, of the Citizen's Coalition for Clean Air, said the air quality health index is an important step forward.

"It reinforces the link between air pollution and human health. Of course, we've always known that and people like the Lung Association and others have known it," Dalzell said.

"But, really, it's an opportunity to give the public a health protection tool that they can use themselves to look at the risk associated with air quality."

Last year, the federal government allotted $30 million to implement the system across Canada. So far, only Vancouver, Toronto, and Saint John are using it.