Environment Canada air quality warning system needs a megaphone

Winnipeg writer Joanne Seiff says air quality alerts issued by Environment Canada this summer either weren't emphatic enough or otherwise should've been amplified for the masses by media and government.

Government, media should be doing more to ensure populations more aware of poor air

The sun was blotted out by Saskatchewan and Alberta forest fire smoke in Manitoba during the end of June and into July this year. The fires led Environment Canada to issue regular air quality statements for Manitoba for weeks before the haze lifted and conditions returned to normal. (Courtesy Glen Hoban)

Years ago, while in graduate school, I lived in the North Carolina Piedmont. 

Home to several universities and the Research Triangle, the Piedmont acts geographically as a "trough." Hot, humid, sticky and polluted air gets stuck in that trough.

Many summer days, the government sent out Code Red or Code Orange alerts to citizens that indicated air quality was very poor. On those days, the city made bus service free.

If you had asthma, a heart condition, or other impairments, health experts advised finding some air conditioning and staying inside. Often, the only hope was that a late afternoon thunderstorm would rumble through, clearing the air for a few hours, before the smog settled once more.

The hazy forest fire smoke that blanketed Winnipeg in July this summer reminded me of North Carolina. The heavy, poor air quality was the same. For a household with kids and two asthmatics getting over a summer cold, breathing felt oppressive. We stayed indoors and struggled, wondering what was going on.

Finally, I searched online until I found the Winnipeg air quality index on the Environment Canada website. My non-scientific evaluation of Winnipeg's poor air quality understated the problem. In the evening of Sunday, July 5, Environment Canada rated Winnipeg's air quality at 10 (out of a maximum of 10+), hovering just between "high risk" and "very high risk."

Environment Canada's air quality index for Winnipeg on Aug. 2 was rated a 2 or "low risk. (Environment Canada)

I also discovered that the air quality warnings extended south of the border, deep into Minnesota. If you lived in the United States, you might have known more about the weather and the risk of illness due to the smoke pollution, because air quality is routinely included in television and radio weather reports.

At this point, we know the fires were very serious, requiring firefighters from distant provinces and the U.S. to fly in as reinforcements. Thousands evacuated their homes in fire-threatened communities, and the Canadian military gave soldiers a crash course in firefighting before deploying them to help stop the fires.

Fire widespread

While fire is part of the natural life cycle of forest ecosystems, things are far more widespread than usual this summer.

We're lucky so far in Winnipeg. For a few days, the air smelled like the moment after dousing a campfire, but the fires were hundreds of kilometers away. We're not being forced to evacuate.  We're still in our homes, with our pets and our families. 

Yet, people with breathing problems were in distress. This experience made me wonder about the quality of our alert systems, government infrastructure and media. When Environment Canada's air quality Index indicates that it is very risky for anyone to be outdoors, why didn't everyone know about it?

It's not that we lacked the scientific data from Environment Canada. Shouldn't that same information about the danger to health be automatically part of the warnings posted by the media about the weather conditions? Anecdotally, anyone who stuck his head outside could guess that the air was smoky and unsafe, but public health should not be based on guesswork.

Wouldn't it be wise to publicize this via television, radio, and internet outlets? Was the provincial or local government aware of the risk to health? Were there increases in admissions to hospitals due to breathing difficulties? Were bus fares waived so that citizens could take public transport and get home quickly, as opposed to walking or biking in adverse air conditions?

More needs to be done

Common sense may dictate that one stays in when the air conditions are poor, but it sure would be good public health and welfare practice to state just how bad conditions were, and remind the public when it is at high risk.

It's true, too, that the worst air quality was during a holiday week at a time when many were away, at their cottages and far away from work. But the solution is at hand for that as well.

If media outlets routinely post air quality updates as part of the weather report, perhaps someone in charge might see it. 

If our health care system doesn't send out an alert, it might be a chance for the public transit system, the city or provincial governments to step in. Yes, it was July, but someone still needs to monitor environmental conditions to keep our population safe. 

This could have been a news story, but beyond that, we could have done better to protect our province's health.

This time, the breeze shifted, and we could all breathe a little easier the next day. Next time, I hope we're lucky enough to have an air quality alert system in place, because we might not always be so lucky.

Joanne Seiff is the author of two books. She writes, designs and teaches in Winnipeg.


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