New monitoring equipment could lead to more air quality advisories.

We use our air every two seconds to breathe, and although we can’t see it, it’s as important as our drinking water. Protecting our air starts with monitoring and assessing its quality, which is conducted by the provincial government, Metro Vancouver, and industry (where required by permit) in cooperation with Environment Canada and regional districts.

Approximately 150 air quality monitoring stations throughout British Columbia measure a variety of air contaminants, including fine particulate matter (PM2.5); microscopic solid and liquid particles that are 2.5 micrometres or smaller in diameter. PM 2.5 is particularly harmful to human health and is considered the most important outdoor air pollutant in B.C. from a public health perspective.

This past June, the Ministry of Environment began upgrading its air quality monitoring equipment throughout the province, installing 22 new FEM (Federal Equivalent Method) monitors, which provide a more accurate measure of PM 2.5 than existing equipment. Data from these new monitors will be widely reported starting in 2013 and is available at www.bcairquality.ca.

Testing to date indicates that these monitors will record higher readings of PM 2.5, which could potentially trigger a greater number of air quality advisories than in past years- despite no change in overall air quality. The measurements will also vary from site to site, depending on the type of particulate matter present and the local temperature. The largest differences are expected in colder areas of B.C. where wood smoke is prevalent.

Periods that were thought to have marginal air quality, for instance during the winter holidays when people tend to use their fireplaces and woodstoves the most, may now be deemed to have poor air quality due to higher recorded PM 2.5 levels. Such levels may even surpass air quality thresholds and trigger air quality advisories, perhaps in communities that have never been issued an advisory.

Air quality advisories are intended to trigger actions that prevent or reduce emissions, for example burn bans or a reduction in woodstove use, but the conditions that trigger an advisory- high levels of contaminants like PM 2.5 that are harmful to human health should be avoided all together.

Clean wood burning practices or avoiding wood burning all together and avoiding vehicle emissions by carpooling, taking public transit and never idling are excellent preventative measures that will go a long way to protect our air and our health.