Ottawa has an air pollution problem and it's time we tackled it

Here are just eight examples where local air quality readings have been recorded in a range that is dangerous to our health.
Jake Cole
Ottawa Citizen
Date published: 
March 20, 2021

Does Ottawa have an air pollution problem? The short answer is yes, particularly in certain areas of the city.

With funding from the Ottawa Community Foundation and in cooperation with Ecology Ottawa, the Sierra Club Canada Foundation is leading a project, BreatheEasy, to monitor outdoor air quality (AQ) in all wards across the city. From what we’re finding out, the air is not healthy, certainly not everywhere and not every day.

The Ontario Ministry of the Environment, Conservation and Parks operates one air quality (AQ) station in the city. It is located in MacDonald Gardens Park on Wurtemburg Street, near the Rideau River. Typically, the readings for that site show that air pollution is in the “low risk” range. Anyone seeing such messaging would likely be comforted and assume that Ottawa’s AQ is just fine.

But just a few steps away, our team of “citizen scientists,” using a portable AQ monitor, measured high pollution readings along nearby Rideau Street. Yet hardly anyone knows this, or that there are many similar “hot spots” throughout the city where the air is not healthy. Residents should know this.

Our monitoring has uncovered several such hot spots. Here are just eight examples where AQ readings were in the danger zone (with likely air pollution sources as shown):

1. Ward 5: West-end industrial site near the Carp Road and Richardson Side Road intersection (various industrial emissions).

2. Ward 6: A Stittsville school-bus student drop-off zone (diesel exhaust).

3. Ward 23: Kanata Costco parking lot (car traffic).

4. Ward 14: Downtown Parliament Hill area (traffic and construction).

5. Ward 12: Downtown Rideau Street area between Nicholas Street and the Rideau River (traffic and construction).

6. Ward 17: Bank Street at Lansdowne Park (stop-and-go traffic).

7. Ward 11: Montreal Road and Highway 174 interchange (traffic and construction).

8. Ward 21: Rural farm area west of Manotick (waste-wood smoke).

What can we do to improve our air quality? First, we need to acknowledge the problem and understand the potential health impacts: lower IQ in children, increased risk of serious diseases, shortened lifespan, and more. Even a short exposure to unhealthy air is not good for us. Long-term exposure, while often unnoticed, can be much more deadly. To quote author and noted air quality expert Gary Fuller, air pollution is an “Invisible Killer.”

Then we need to act.

“I refuse to stand by while Londoners are killed by pollution.” That’s what Sadiq Khan, mayor of London, England said in 2017 when he announced a series of measures to clean up that city’s air pollution. At that time it was estimated that some 9,000 of London’s residents were dying annually from air pollution. Health Canada uses similar calculations in a report that would determine about 500 premature deaths are caused by air pollution here in Ottawa. How then can we stand by while almost the same thing is happening here?

At the personal level, I try to avoid spending time in polluted areas like the hot spots noted above and fortunately, where I live, the AQ is generally quite safe. How is it for everyone else? In our AQ project, we are offering a limited number of AQ tests for residents to check their own, local conditions. More information is available on that by contacting our e-mail address below.

At the collective level, we can identify the air pollution concerns in our city, learn how to deal with them and significantly reduce the negative impact on our health. Cities like London are doing it. So can we, by learning from others and by creating our own solutions so that we can all breathe a little easier and live better as a result.

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