When the air in New Delhi is at its worst, simply living there is equivalent to smoking 44 cigarettes a day.

In Something in the Air, a documentary from The Nature of Things, chest surgeon Dr. Arvind Kumar of New Delhi’s Sir Ganga Ram Hospital is clear when he says: “Truly, there are no non-smokers in India.” Last year, breathing the city’s air for one day — based on its average quality — was equal to smoking between 20 and 25 cigarettes.

But air pollution is a major problem around the world, and not only in cities where you can see and taste the smog. Even in Canada, where the air quality is generally considered safe, more than 21,000 people die prematurely from air pollution every year — approximately nine times more than are killed in traffic accidents.

“We should know what we’re breathing,” says Greg Evans, a University of Toronto researcher whose research team built a mobile laboratory to study air pollution around the city. “Our idea is that people should have access to information about air quality.”

Indeed, the more information we have, the more we can do to limit our exposure to pollution, whether it's by adjusting our route to work or avoiding vacation spots with hazardous air. Awareness can also help people at risk, such as those with asthma or heart conditions, better manage their health."

So how can we learn more about what we’re breathing? Fortunately, there are tools to help.

The Air Quality Health Index

The Air Quality Health Index (AQHI) is an overall gauge of air quality used across Canada. The government of Canada has a site and an app that report most major cities’ AQHI to give Canadians an idea of when air quality might be an issue, making recommendations for activity levels and for those with health conditions. 


As forest fires become more of a regular air hazard, the government of Canada has developed FireWork. This system of real-time maps reports changing air quality during wildfire season, which stretches from early April to late October.

Breathe for COPD

For Canadians with Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), there’s a new app from the University of Health Network that incorporates the Canadian Thoracic Society’s COPD action plan. Breathe for COPD was designed to help patients by providing feedback on how to self-manage their symptoms.

The World Air Quality Index

If you’re planning to travel, there are a number of apps and local resources that provide air quality information. The World Air Quality Index, for one, is a non-profit site with a real-time map of the world and there is also an app for mobile phones.

AirVisual Earth

AirVisual Earth is a highly detailed, interactive map that displays both changing air quality and prevailing winds around the globe. It shows both fine and coarse particles of air pollution and lets users see how dust storms from the desert can travel incredible distances.

Sh**t! I Smoke

There are also apps with a sense of humour. Sh**t! I Smoke is an app that gauges the air pollution in your city and shows the equivalent number of cigarettes you would have to smoke to match breathing there for a day.

Portable air monitors

One of the best ways to understand what you’re breathing is to buy a portable air monitor. These devices have come down in price and measure the most common size of air particulates such as PM 10 and PM 2.5.

Lightweight and battery-powered, portable monitors can be taken anywhere and give a true picture of day-to-day air quality where you live, walk and work. Stationary home monitors, on the other hand, can track the air quality both in and outside your home, and some can be networked to share air quality information.

“I would like to see a monitor on every corner. I would also like to see a monitor on rental bikes,” says Marianne Hatzopolou, a researcher with the University of Toronto. Monitoring stations are already found in many European cities.

"By interacting with real-time air pollution maps and monitoring devices, we’ll all have a better understanding of the air quality around us."

Three unexpected ways that air pollution may affect our bodies
Simple ways to reduce your exposure to air pollution outside

An overview of many helpful new apps and information can be found on the Something in the Air website.

Watch Something in the Air on The Nature of Things.


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