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Air Quality Readings Slammed

It's worse than the public thinks, says environment watchdog

By Doug Schmidt, The Windsor Star, Thursday, October 23, 2008

Air pollution in Windsor and other Ontario cities may be a lot worse than the public is being told, Ontario environmental commissioner Gord Miller charges in his annual report to the legislature that criticizes the province's air quality index reporting system.

Using data culled from his office's own independent monitoring in Windsor and eight other cities, Miller told The Star in an interview Wednesday there were days when his own instruments registered the equivalent of "very poor," while nearby provincial AQI stations were reporting "good" air quality.

AQI readings of poor or worse trigger media and public health alerts urging people, especially children, seniors and those with pre-existing medical conditions, to avoid strenuous outdoor activity.

The Canadian Medical Association in June estimated that episodes of elevated air pollution would cause 21,000 premature Canadian deaths this year.

That figure translates into air pollution killing 314 people prematurely in Windsor and Essex County this year.

One problem, said Miller, is that Ontario's AQI system of 40 monitoring stations across the province -- two in Windsor -- are designed to gauge air pollution at the regional level, ignoring local or "street-level" smog occurrences.

Compounding that problem, the AQI stations are generally removed from pollution sources, meaning their readings can be of questionable value to people living next to factories or busy streets. And the public only gets measurements based on the worst of six contaminants monitored, not based on the potential cumulative negative effect of pollutants mixing together.

Advising the public that the air quality on a given day is good when it's not, said Miller, "entices people to expose themselves to harmful levels."

Miller said Ontario, which had one of the world's most advanced air monitoring systems when the AQI was introduced in 1988, now needs to play catch-up to European cities, which have a blend of regional and local air monitoring for greater pollution reporting accuracy.

The commissioner's office is preparing a special report on the AQI's shortcomings and suggested solutions, for release in the new year. Miller said three local sites -- in LaSalle, Assumption Park and in East Windsor -- were monitored in the summers of 2007 and 2008 as part of the research.

Responding to Miller's criticisms, Ministry of Environment spokesman John Steele said: "We understand what he is saying.... AQI was designed to look at the overall air quality."

He said provincial traffic studies are underway in Toronto and Ottawa to examine transportation and "street-level" air pollution.

And Steele said the province is involved with the federal government in a Toronto pilot project that is looking at developing a new air quality health index, designed to relate pollution levels to "real health outcomes."

"This is something we've complained about long before this particular report came out," said Derek Coronado, co-ordinator with the Windsor-based Citizens' Environment Alliance. "There's a public appetite for more and better information," he added.

Copyright (c) The Windsor Star