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A picture of Calgary and its polluted weather

Protecting Kids from Elevated Air Pollution in Calgary

Arya FrouzaanFar

Arya FrouzaanFar

Beautiful scenery and clean air are two of the things Calgary is known for, but the air quality isn’t always consistent. The city has recently experienced elevated levels of air pollution due to stagnant winter weather, which traps pollutants close to the ground and limits their dispersion. According to Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC), this situation is expected to last until we see stronger winds and warmer temperatures that disperse the pollutants.

Air pollution can have negative effects on everyone’s health, but especially on children. They breathe faster and more deeply than adults, and their lungs and immune systems are still developing. Exposure to air pollution can worsen existing respiratory problems like asthma and bronchitis and increase the risk of infections, allergies, and chronic diseases. It can also affect children’s cognitive development and academic performance in extreme conditions.

As parents and caregivers, we want to protect our kids from air pollution and ensure they grow up healthy and happy. In this article, we will explore what causes pollution in Calgary, how to check the current air quality, and what we can do to reduce our exposure and improve our environment. Let’s get to it!

What’s Causing the Pollution in Calgary?

Calgary is a major city with many sources of air pollution, including factories and many vehicles. It’s also essentially surrounded by mountains, making airflow more difficult and making the city more susceptible to weather inversion.

Let’s take a brief look at major sources of pollution, the pollutants, and why winter weather has a adverse impact on air quality.

Major Contributors

Here are some of the biggest sources of air pollution today:

  • Vehicle emissions: Cars, trucks, buses, and other vehicles emit pollutants like nitrogen oxides (NOx), carbon monoxide (CO), and volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which react with sunlight to form ozone. Vehicle emissions also contribute to fine particulate matter (PM2.5), which we’ll discuss in a bit.
  • Industrial activity: Refineries, factories, power plants, and other industrial facilities release pollutants like sulphur dioxide (SO2), NOx, VOCs, and PM2.5, which can affect the air quality in nearby areas.
  • Dust: Construction sites, roads, fields, and other areas can generate dust, which is another source of PM2.5. Dust can worsen visibility and irritate the eyes, nose, and throat.
  • Wood burning: Fireplaces, wood stoves, and outdoor fires can produce smoke, which contains PM2.5, CO, VOCs, and other pollutants.

Stagnant Weather’s Impact

The weather, as you guessed it, plays a crucial role in determining the air quality in Calgary. When the weather is windy, rainy, or snowy, the pollutants are diluted and dispersed, improving air quality.

However, when the weather is calm, cold, and dry, the pollutants are trapped close to the ground, increasing their concentration and worsening the air quality. This happens during stagnant weather conditions, which are common in Calgary during the winter months.

Stagnant weather occurs when a high-pressure system settles over the region. This prevents the vertical mixing of air and creates a layer of warm air above a layer of cold air near the surface.

This is called a temperature inversion, acting like a lid that traps the pollutants below it. The longer the stagnant weather lasts, the more the pollutants accumulate and the worse the air quality becomes.

Air Quality in Calgary Today

The Air Quality Health Index (AQHI) is a tool that measures the health risks associated with air pollution in any given area. It’s calculated based on the levels of three pollutants: PM2.5, ozone, and NO2.

The AQHI ranges from 1 to 10+, where 1 means low risk, and 10+ means very high risk. The index also provides health advice for different groups of people, such as the general population, people at risk, and children.

Where to check the Air Quality Health Index (AQHI)

We recommend two websites for checking current and forecasted AQHI for Calgary and other locations.

  • Environment Canada (Calgary): This is Canada’s official source of AQHI data. You can find the AQHI for Calgary and other cities, as well as maps, graphs, and historical data. You can also sign up for email or text alerts when your area’s AQHI reaches high levels.
  • IQAir (Calgary): This global platform provides real-time and historical air quality data for over 10,000 locations worldwide. You can find the AQHI for Calgary and other places in Alberta, as well as other air quality indicators, such as PM2.5, PM10, CO, SO2, and NO2.

Understanding AQHI Data

The AQHI is a useful tool to help you plan your daily activities and protect your health from air pollution. However, it is important to understand what the AQHI data means and how to use it effectively.

First, know your risk group. People at risk in air pollution are listed below according to Environment and Climate Change Canada. These people should follow the health advice for their risk group and consult their healthcare provider if they have any concerns.

  • Seniors
  • Pregnant people
  • Infants and young children
  • People who work outdoors
  • People involved in strenuous outdoor exercise
  • People with an existing illness or chronic health conditions, such as:
    • Cancer
    • Diabetes
    • Mental illness
    • Lung or heart conditions

Second, know the risk categories. The AQHI is divided into four risk categories: low (1-3), moderate (4-6), high (7-10), and very high (10+). When the AQHI is low, the air quality is good, and there is no need to modify your activities. However, when the AQHI is high or very high, the air quality is poor, and there is a significant health risk, even maybe to people not listed above.

Third, monitor the AQHI regularly. The AQHI can change throughout the day and from day to day, depending on the weather and the sources of pollution. Therefore, it is essential to monitor the AQHI regularly and adjust your activities accordingly.

5 Things You Can Do to Protect Your Kids from Air Pollution

While we cannot directly control the weather or the sources of pollution, there are things we can do to protect our kids and our environment.

Here are five of those things to help your kids breathe healthier:

Limit Outdoor Activities

One of the most effective ways to reduce your exposure to air pollution is to limit your outdoor activities when the AQHI is high. This is especially important for children, who are more vulnerable to the impacts of air pollution and tend to spend more time outdoors.

When the AQHI is high, choose indoor alternatives or wait for the air quality to improve before going outside. You should also avoid strenuous or prolonged outdoor activities such as running, biking, or playing sports, as they increase the air and pollutants you breathe in. You might also like to know that all of our centres have big windows that could be closed, but let in a lot of natural sunlight at the same time. (Come see for yourself!)

Seal Up While Indoors

Another way to stay relatively safe is to seal up your home when the AQHI is high. This can help reduce the amount of outdoor air that enters your home and keep the Indoor air quality as good as possible. You can keep your windows and doors closed and use weather stripping, caulking, or tape to seal any gaps or cracks.

You can also use fans, air conditioners, or dehumidifiers to improve the ventilation and comfort of your home. However, make sure to check and clean these devices’ filters regularly, as they can accumulate dust and pollutants over time.

Purify the Air

You may also want to consider using air purifiers to improve the air quality in your home. Air purifiers are devices that remove pollutants from the air using different methods, such as filters, ionizers, or UV lights. Air purifiers can be especially helpful for children’s rooms, where they spend most of their time sleeping, playing, or studying.

However, air purifiers are expensive, and not all of them are equally effective. (Some may even produce harmful by-products, such as ozone.) Therefore, you should choose air purifiers with HEPA filters, which can capture 99.97% of particles as small as 0.3 microns and avoid those that generate ozone or other chemicals.

Mask Up When Necessary

You may sometimes have to go outside when the AQHI is high, for example, to go to school, work, or run errands. In this case, you may want to wear a mask to protect yourself from air pollution. Masks can help filter out some of the pollutants in the air and reduce your exposure.

As we learned during the pandemic, not all masks are equally effective. Some may even be uncomfortable or harmful! Therefore, follow health authority guidelines on wearing masks outdoors during high-pollution events. It would be best if you also chose masks that fit well, are breathable, and have multiple layers of fabric or filters. Don’t forget to change or wash your masks regularly, as they can get dirty or clogged over time.

Advocate for Cleaner Air

Finally, one of the most important things you can do to protect yourself and your kids from air pollution is to advocate for cleaner air in your community and beyond. Air pollution is a complex global problem that requires collective action and cooperation from various stakeholders, such as governments, industries, organizations, and individuals.

You can raise awareness, educate others, support policies and initiatives, and take actions that reduce your own environmental impact. For example, you can:

  • Join or start a campaign or a group that advocates for cleaner air in your area, such as the Climate and Clean Air Coalition or the Alberta Environmental Network.
  • Contact your local representatives or authorities and express your concerns and suggestions about air quality issues and solutions, such as implementing stricter emission standards, expanding public transit, or promoting renewable energy sources.
  • Participate in public consultations or surveys on air quality management or improvement plans, such as the Calgary Region Airshed Zone.
  • Reduce your own contribution to air pollution by choosing greener modes of transportation, such as walking, biking, carpooling, or taking public transit, or by driving less or smarter. You can also opt for driving cleaner vehicles, such as electric or hybrid cars.
  • Conserve energy and water at home and work by using energy-efficient appliances, turning off or unplugging devices when not in use, adjusting the thermostat, or installing low-flow faucets or showerheads.
  • Reduce activities that produce smoke or dust, such as burning wood, using fire pits, or sweeping dry leaves. Opt for cleaner alternatives, such as using natural gas, electric, propane heaters, or composting or mulching organic waste.

Explaining Air Pollution to Your Kid

Talking to your kid about air pollution can be challenging, as it is a complex and scary topic that may confuse or frighten them. It is still important, as it can help them understand the world they live in and how to take care of themselves and their environment.

Read on for some tips to help you explain air pollution to your kid!

Age-Appropriate Language

When talking to your kid about air pollution, you should use simple terms and relatable examples that they can understand and relate to. For example, you can say that air pollution is like dirty smoke in the air that makes it hard to breathe and see and that it comes from things like cars, factories, or fires.

You can also use visual aids, such as pictures, videos, or maps, to show them what air pollution looks like and where it comes from. There are a lot of good storybooks out there you can read together, too!

Focus on the Positive

When talking to your kid about air pollution, you should also focus on the positive aspects and the solutions rather than the negative impacts and the problems. This can help them feel hopeful and empowered rather than hopeless and helpless.

For example, you can say that air pollution can be reduced or prevented by doing things like taking the bus, riding a bike, or using less electricity. You can also tell them that rain, wind, or plants can clean air pollution. It’s also an excellent practice to praise them for their actions and choices that help the air, such as turning off the lights, recycling, or planting flowers!

Get Them Involved

Now, you’ve empowered your kids to do more. You can also take it further! Here are some fun and engaging ways to help your child feel involved in reducing air pollution:

  • Get planting: Start a small garden or plant houseplants together. Discuss how plants absorb harmful pollutants and release clean oxygen.
  • Become eco-artists: Use recycled materials to create art projects that promote clean air awareness.
  • Organize a clean-up: Gather family and friends for a local clean-up activity to remove trash and debris that contribute to air pollution.
  • Support clean air initiatives: Participate in campaigns or fundraisers organized by environmental groups to fight air pollution.

Reassurance & Open Communication

It’s natural for children to have questions and concerns about air pollution. Be open and honest about the challenges, but also emphasize the positive steps we can take to create a cleaner future.

  • Reassure them about their safety: Let your child know that you’re protecting their health by monitoring air quality levels and making responsible choices at home.
  • Answer their questions honestly: Even if you don’t have all the answers, encourage your child to ask questions and engage in open discussions about air pollution. Of course, always use age-appropriate language and simple terms.
  • Emphasize individual action: Explain that even small actions, like choosing to walk or bike instead of driving, can make a difference. Celebrate their efforts and highlight the collective impact of individual choices.
  • Connect with the community: Engage in local initiatives to address air pollution concerns. This can help your child feel empowered and part of a larger movement towards cleaner air.

Conclusion

Air pollution is a concern for all of us, but we’re not powerless! Let’s protect the kids and help them create a brighter, cleaner future.

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