Whyte Avenue fire affects local air quality

Whyte Avenue fire affects local air quality

Whyte Avenue fire affects local air quality


At 4:00am on April 7, 2011, I woke up to smoke pouring through the vent in my bedroom.  Was my building on fire?  I stepped outside and saw firefighters in gas masks combating a black cloud less than a hundred paces away.  When the stinging eyes and tight chest set in, we took our child and left our neighborhood for the night. Before biking to work in the morning, I made sure to check Alberta Environment’s “real time data” on Current Air Quality.  All three monitoring stations in Edmonton showed a rating of “good” at all times throughout the night, including the station closest to my home and workplace.  But when I rode out at 8:00am, I knew that I should not breathe hard that day.

Flames at Whyte Ave and 99th Street in Edmonton

You don’t need to be a lawyer or a scientist to protect your lungs from environmental health risks.  In the cool days of early spring, one proven concern is “particulate matter”:  basically floating crud, often from burning stuff.  In the city, much particulate matter has backyard sources:  garbage fires, roofing tar, revving hot rods.  These are sources that you can see, smell, hear and taste for yourself.   Move one block and your walk improves.  Call  bylaw enforcement and your block improves.

You have a legal right to air quality information, and much of it is posted already.  You might ask:

What is the air quality in my region?

Air quality is often a local issue with local solutions, so you could begin by contacting the monitoring body for your “airshed zone”.  If you prefer to analyze data yourself, Alberta Environment’s real time results gets audited and stored in the Clean Air Strategic Alliance data warehouse.  April is the start of forest fire season, so you might want to check the BC-Alberta smoke forecasting service.

What contaminants affects the air quality?

 “Criteria Air Contaminants” and related pollutants are listed and explained by Environment Canada.

Who is emitting these contaminants?

The largest pollution emitters must report their emissions to the National Pollutant Release Inventory.  You can search this inventory by facility name or geographic location.  To see online  maps of the NPRI pollution sources and assessments of facility performance, visit the activists at Emitter.ca.

How do these contaminants affect human and environmental health?

 Health Canada provides information on The Health Effects of Air Pollution.  Health Canada is piloting a new Air Quality Health Index, though the current pilot sites are not in Alberta.  Alberta Environment tracks provincial air quality trends and assesses the environmental implications of those trends as part of its State of the Environment reporting service.

Which brings us back to the Whyte Avenue fire and backyard emissions: too small, too local, and too fleeting to see on official records, but they impact the state of my environment and perhaps yours.  The right to access information helps protect human and environmental health, but it is not the right to an answer.  Sometimes the best source of information about your environment is you.  Trust your senses.




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  • Laura Bowman
    Posted at 13:02h, 21 April Reply

    Great post Adam,

    I am wondering if you came across anything on the “total hydrocarbon” parameter in Alberta sources. As far as I can tell there is no way to obtain a breakdown in what contaminants are present and no other jurisdiction amalgamates hydrocarbons in this way.

    • Adam Driedzic
      Posted at 16:04h, 21 April Reply

      Alberta uses “total hydrocarbons” to include methane and “reactive hydrocarbons”. Methane is the most common hydrocarbon in the atmosphere and is not hazardous at natural levels. Reactive Hydrocarbons exist in smaller quantities and often have human sources. Reactive Hydrocarbons can form “ground level ozone”, which is a health concern, or be toxic in their own right.

      Alberta does not have Ambient Air Quality Objectives for “total hydrocarbons”. The Province holds that the level of total hydrocarbons is fairly equivalent to the methane level. It also notes that hydrocarbons and especially methane can have natural sources.

      Alberta has ambient air quality objectives for some reactive hydrocarbons.

      Environment states that:
      “These objectives are intended to provide protection of the environment and human health to an extent technically and economically feasible, as well as socially and politically acceptable.

      Knowing when hydrocarbon levels have been exceeded requires some legwork.

      The Air Quality Index does not include hydrocarbons.

      Many regulated emitters in Alberta are not required to monitor and report hydrocarbons.

      Routine hydrocarbon emissions are usually too low to be caught by the duty to report releases in the Alberta Environmental Protection and Enhancement Act.

      The NPRI lists specific hydrocarbons from reporting facilities. This is valuable for information seekers because the same facilities that do not report hydrocarbons to the province may be required to report to the feds. But, like the provincial system, routine emissions can fall below the federal reporting threshold.

      Reactive hydrocarbon levels are occassionally determined through direct Monitoring by Alberta Environment. This is often done by the Mobile Air Monitoring Laboratory (MAML). The hydrocarbon sample is split into two paths. One path gets analyzed for total hydrocarbons and the other gets analyzed after the methane is removed. The difference between the two is the reactive hydrocarbons. But there is not always a further breakdown dispite the existence of numerous reactive hydrocarbons. There is a seperate category for Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAH).

      MAML samples and the resulting Alberta Environment information are often generated in response to a specific incident or complaint. See some posted Surveys and Reports:

      Ambient hydrocarbon information is not proactively posted like the specific Surveys and Reports. If such information exists, it could be viewed through a request to Alberta Environment. Monitoring data collected by Alberta Environment is routinely disclosed to the public under s.35 of the Environmental Protection and Enhancement Act. The information must exist to be accessible. There is no right to force information creation.

      Hydrocarbon emissions frequently have the same sources as other air contaminants that are proactively posted, like particulate matter, carbon monoxide, and oxides of nitrogen and sulfur. This fact can help people concerned with hydrocarbon pollution make their own decisions.

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