Gasping for breath

Gasping for breath

Fanshawe College researchers seek links between rapid changes in air quality and health
June 10, 2009

On almost any hot summer day, you see it—a brownish shroud of photochemical smog enveloping cities across Canada. In the past decade, air quality has emerged as a major public environmental and health issue across the country. In Ontario, the number of “smog days” nearly quadrupled from 15 in 1995 to 53 in 2005. If nothing is done to clean the air, medical experts estimate that by 2026 the number of smog-related premature deaths in Ontario alone will hit 10,000 annually. The combined health care and lost productivity costs are expected to exceed $1 billion.

In an effort to avert fulfilling this prophecy, a team of researchers at London, Ontario’s Fanshawe College is tracking rapid fluctuations in air quality to help determine if they have an impact on human health. Using state-of-the-art environmental monitoring equipment the team has so far shown that traditional air-quality monitoring standards fail to record some high pollution levels—ones that could leave Canadians short of breath.

“We’re studying short-term variations, those of less than one hour, in ozone and particulate matter and determining whether they have any relationship to one another, and whether they have a relationship to the health of people with Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD)—conditions such as emphysema and bronchitis. This is very much unbroken scientific ground,” says Barrow Baldwin, a physicist and professor at Fanshawe College’s Faculty of Technology, and one of the study’s lead investigators.

When the Ontario Ministry of Environment monitors ground-level ozone, particulate matter, and other atmospheric pollutants at its approximately 30 stations across the province, it uses seasonal, monthly, daily, and hodefaulty averages. Similar regulatory agencies in Canada and around the world do the same.

However, in 1997, Baldwin and his colleague Victor Sells discovered that even hodefaulty averages in air-pollution levels were missing major air-quality fluctuations. That study, in collaboration with researchers at the University of Western Ontario, revealed that rapid and dramatic fluctuations in ozone concentrations occurred in just minutes, not hours.“Ozone levels can spike by 500% in 10 minutes, then come back down. So we were interested in finding out more about the variations that occur in these pollutants, but that are presently under the regulatory radar,” says Baldwin. Pollution is a particularly serious issue for London, Ontario, the city with the province’s second highest number of smog days after Toronto.

To track the rapid changes in air pollution, the Fanshawe team, including chemist Mollin Rampersad, installed a network of advanced air-quality monitoring tools at four rural and urban sites in the London area. The team, including 12 of the college’s environmental science co-op students, uses the simultaneous monitoring tools to record variations in particulate matter, ozone, and a half-dozen other gaseous pollutants, some of which are monitored at one-minute intervals gaseous pollutants. Variations occur because of changing weather conditions and the particular chemical soup of pollutants in the air.

Already, the study reveals that while ozone levels usually drop at night, nitrogen dioxide levels often peak. This leaves no period of respite for COPD sufferers who are highly sensitive to both gases. The results are now being used by local respirologists and environmental health experts to study the links between rapid air-quality changes and the health of COPD patients.

Benefits

There’s no doubt that smog kills. The Ontario Medical Association estimates that in 2005, approximately 5,400 people died prematurely due to exposure to air pollution in Canada's largest province alone. But what's still up in the air are any definite links between health effects and the lengths of exposure to various quantities of airborne pollutants.

This is where the Fanshawe College-led research on short-term variations in air quality is providing a unique perspective. By developing a better understanding of exactly how air quality affects health, appropriate action can take place to clear the air. “Our research could have great significance for regulations dealing with air pollutants,” says Barrow Baldwin, one of the professors leading the research.

In order to make better links between air quality and health, the Fanshawe researchers have teamed up with leading London, Ontario-based respirology and environmental health experts—Robin McFadden, chief respirologist at the St. Joseph’s Health Centre, and Nigel Paterson, chief respirologist at the London Health Science’s Centre. Together, they study the Fanshawe air-quality data and correlate it to the health of patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. It's the first time the clinicians have had access to such detailed air-quality data, and it is hoped that further study will provide additional insight into how much exposure to certain pollutants causes what degree of harm.

“Our meetings with the respirologists were always stimulating and invigorating,” says Victor Sells, who co-led the research. “Scientists look at things in a different way than medical people, and so the cross-fertilization of ideas is good for both.”

As well as guiding provincial and federal air-quality guidelines, the results of the research could prove useful for Canadian negotiators in discussions with the United States—the source of about half of Ontario’s air pollution.

Partners

The Fanshawe College air-quality initiative involves a broad, multidisciplinary, collaborative approach that continues to bring together environmental scientists, doctors, government regulators, and scientific equipment manufacturers. Along with respirologists from the London Health Sciences Centre and St. Joseph’s Health Centre hospitals, health expertise is provided by Jim Reffle, Director of Environmental Health and Chronic Disease Prevention Services at the London-Middlesex Health Unit, and aerosol scientist Jolyon Mitchell of Trudell Medical International. Experts from the Ontario Ministry of the Environment provide access to data, a site for erecting a monitoring station, and technical assistance with the air-quality modelling. The project also receives funding, equipment in-kind, and technical support from Agilent Technologies Inc., Nortech GSI Inc., and C.D. NovaTech Corporation.

Learn More

Get a comprehensive picture of air quality in Canada and what you can do about it on Environment Canada’s Web site.

Read the Canadian Medical Association’s report on smog and its deleterious effects, with specific health forecasts for individual Ontario communities.