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Wildfires worsening Canada’s air quality

by Ibrahim Daair, Municipal World
in Emergency Services, Environment, Sustainability
June, 2024

Western and Northern Canada could experience an above-average fire risk this summer. That’s according to officials from Natural Resources Canada who warned the wildfire outlook is expected to worsen in June.

“Although the current overall conditions are at normal levels for this time of year, the risk of damaging wildfires remains significant, driven by warm temperatures and drought,” said Julienne Morissette, director of wildland policy research and operations at Natural Resources Canada.

Potentially worse wildfires are bad news for Canada’s environment, particularly when it comes to the air we breath. A recent report on air quality around the world has found that some Canadian cities are among the most polluted in North America.

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The 2023 World Air Quality report, from Swiss technology company IQAir, found that a number of northern Canadian cities experienced significantly poor air quality. The report was complied using data from more than 30,000 air quality monitors in 134 countries and territories. Finland, Estonia, Australia, New Zealand, Grenada, Iceland, and Mauritius were the only seven countries that met the World Health Organization’s (WHO) air quality guidelines.

Developing Countries Struggle with Air Quality

While poor air quality is a problem that can affect everyone, the report found that people in developing countries were more likely to suffer with polluted air. The top five countries with the highest amounts of fine particles in the air (measured as PM2.5) were Bangladesh, Pakistan, Indian, Tajikistan, and Burkina Faso.

“Independent air quality monitoring stations reveal disproportional exposure to harmful air pollution among vulnerable and underrepresented groups,” the report states. A total of 124 out of the 134 countries and regions listed in the report exceeded the WHO’s annual PM2.5 limits.

“IQAir’s annual report illustrates the international nature and inequitable consequences of the enduring air pollution crisis,” said Aidan Farrow, a senior air quality scientist at Greenpeace International. “Local, national, and international effort is urgently needed to monitor air quality in under-resourced places, manage the causes of transboundary haze, and cut our reliance on combustion as an energy source.”

Last year, record-breaking wildfires in Quebec burned around 4.5 million hectares of forest and covered much of Central Canada and the eastern U.S. in thick smoke for days.

“Air quality in Northern America was significantly influenced by extensive Canadian wildfires that raged from May to October,” the report states. “Consequently, 2023 marked the first instance in this report’s history where Canada surpassed the United States in regional pollution rankings.”

The report tracked the amount of PM2.5 in the air. PM2.5 are particles smaller than 2.5 microns in diameter. They can most frequently be released into the atmosphere from wood burning and industrial pollution. PM2.5 is particularly harmful for our health as the particles are small enough to travel into our lungs, causing respiratory and other problems.

Tough Times for Canada, United States

Last month, the Northwest Territories wildfire agency detected their first fire of the 2024 season. There have been seven fires detected so far this year, with three currently active.

IQAir’s report found that cities Fort McMurray, Peace River, and Yellowknife were the three North American cities with the highest amount of PM2.5 in the air. All three cities we’re significantly impacted by wildfires last year.

In August 2023, Yellowknife residents were ordered to evacuate the city are wildfires came dangerously close to urban areas.

“The 2023 wildfire season was unlike anything we have ever seen in the Northwest Territories,” Minister of Environment and Climate Change Jay Macdonald told the territorial legislature in February. “More than four million hectares of forest burned over a six-month period, with fires reported all the way from the Beaufort Delta to the South Slave.”

The IQAir report found that 41 per cent on Canadian cities recorded annual PM2.5 levels that were twice the level recommended by the World Health Organization. While 35 cities were three or more times the recommended level.

“Furthermore, Canada witnessed a one-third reduction in cities meeting the WHO annual PM2.5 guideline, dropping from 61 in 2022 to 23 in 2023,” the report stated.

South of the border, Columbus, Ohio, was the most polluted major U.S. city, while Las Vegas, Nev., had the cleanest air among major U.S. cities.

Global Situation is Dire

Some of the worlds most populous cities, home to millions of people, also featured poor air quality. IQAir’s report found that central and southern Asia was home to the 10 most polluted cities in the world. Begusarai, in northeastern India, was the most polluted metropolitan area of 2023. India was home to the four most polluted cities in the world.

One major challenge in assessing air quality is the ability, or lack thereof, to collect data in different places. The report notes that the number of countries and regions with air quality monitoring has steadily increased in recent years.

However, there is still a significant gap in monitoring in many parts of the world. Africa remains the most underrepresented part of the world, with one-third of the population still lacking access to air quality data. That poses a challenge as air quality data from many cities or rural parts of the continent is not being collected.

“A clean, healthy, and sustainable environment is a universal human right,” said Frank Hammes, Global CEO of IQAir. “In many parts of the world the lack of air quality data delays decisive action and perpetuates unnecessary human suffering.”  MW

✯ Municipal World Executive and Essentials Plus Members: You might also be interested in Devin Causley’s article: Lessons from the front lines of climate change.

Ibrahim Daair is staff writer at Municipal World.

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