Hamilton air quality is improving, but it's still worse than downtown Toronto: report

Air quality in Hamilton is improving, but is still worse than downtown Toronto and nearby municipalities, according to a new city report.

There's no data to show how current levels of specific pollutants will affect people

Hamilton's industrial sector is shown at sunset. The city's air quality has improved over the past 26 years, but is worse than most nearby cities, according to a new report. (Bobby Hristova/CBC)

Air quality in Hamilton is improving, but is still worse than downtown Toronto and nearby municipalities, according to a new city report.

The report, presented to the board of health on Monday, showed a "significant reduction city-wide" in air pollutants between 1996 and the end of 2020.

"The news continues to be good within the city," said Bruce Newbold, chair of Clean Air Hamilton. "Although, we also know there are variations in air quality across the city and so what we see in the west end of the city differs from elsewhere."

Particulate matter levels, which include material that comes from combustion, road dust, pollens and other forms of pollution, have mostly fallen.

Respirable particulate matter, which Newbold said comes from outside the city via air systems like the Ohio Valley, slightly increased in west Hamilton, leaving the level there slightly higher than downtown.

Hamilton has had the highest levels of these super fine particles compared to other Ontario cities since 2013. That includes downtown Toronto, east Toronto, Burlington, Oakville, St. Catharines, Kitchener, London, Windsor, Chatham and Sarnia.

Nitrogen dioxide levels saw a dip in the Hamilton, but not so much in the industrial area. The federal government says combustion in transportation, industry and the electric power generation sectors is the main human source of nitrogen dioxide.

When comparing nitrogen oxides, the report found Hamilton had more than Toronto, Burlington, Oakville, St. Catharines and Kitchener. It has had the highest levels compared to those cities since 2018.

Sulphur dioxide levels measured in the city's core have dropped, but are increasing in the industrial area.The federal government says the toxic substance is generally a by-product of industrial processes and burning of fossil fuels and is the main cause of acid rain.

Downtown Hamilton had higher levels than downtown Windsor, Sarnia, west Toronto, downtown Ottawa, Sault Ste. Marie and Sudbury. It has had the highest levels of those sites since 2012.

"It probably reflects the mix of industry we have within the city and the location of industry within the city compared to some of these other locations," Newbold said.

Hamilton will undergo an air quality research study with the University of Toronto in 2022. (Bobby Hristova/CBC)

Ozone levels, which he said is a pollutant that results from chemical reactions in the atmosphere, have remained steady.

Benzene and benzo(a)pyrene levels, which Newbold said are typically caused by industry or incomplete combustion of fossil fuels, are down from the '90s, but are still above guidelines set by the Ministry of the Environment, Conservation and Parks.

Trevor Imhoff, the city's senior project manager of air quality and climate change, said there's no data that can pinpoint how toxic the current levels of each pollutant are to people, despite having a very dense system of air monitors.

That said, the goal is always to get levels as low as they can.

Imhoff also said this year the city is working with researchers from the University of Toronto to monitor seasonal air quality in 60 different locations by attaching air quality devices to street poles in each ward.

Newbold said the city's key objectives are continuing to monitoring air pollutant levels, trying to get fewer people using vehicles and helping industry efforts to reduce their pollution levels.