July 23, 2007

Feds to invest $30M in national Air Quality Health Index; Toronto launches pilot project

The federal government will spend $30 million to establish a national Air Quality Health Index (AQHI) and to expand Canada's existing air quality forecasting program to support this initiative. The new national program was announced by the federal ministers of Environment and of Health, John Baird and Tony Clement, in conjunction with the launch of a pilot AQHI in Toronto. This pilot will serve as the model for the national program's development and will be run by Toronto Public Health in partnership with the federal and provincial governments.

"Air pollution is responsible for 1,700 premature deaths and 6,000 hospital admissions in Toronto each year," said Dr David McKeown, Toronto's medical officer of health. "This new index will provide timely and accurate information on air pollution health risks and how to minimize them," he added, noting, "The index will be particularly useful to vulnerable individuals, such as seniors and those with asthma."

Beginning this month (July 2007), the Toronto pilot will run for approximately 18 months, with the intent of expanding to the Greater Toronto Area in 2008. Toronto is the first Ontario city to pilot the index; more pilot projects are anticipated for other cities in the province. Previous pilot projects have been carried out successfully in British Columbia and Nova Scotia.

The AQHI is based on the relative risks of a combination of three common air pollutants known to harm human health: ground-level ozone (O3), nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and particulate matter (PM2.5 and PM10). It is measured on a coloured scale of 1 to 10+. The higher the value, the greater the health risk and thus the need to take precautions. Included as well are near-term forecasts of air quality-related health risk (current-day, overnight and next-day).

One important feature of the AQHI is its ability to help individuals to assess their own health risk based on symptoms they experience, even if they have no known health problems. The AQHI provides information on the level of risk associated with pollution levels, sending different messages to those who are more sensitive to air pollution than the general population.

Once individuals learn what AQHI value triggers symptoms in them, they can use the AQHI forecasts to plan their outdoor activities. Depending on their risk, residents may wish to limit their short-term exposure to air pollution, adjust their activity levels when air pollution levels are higher, as well as reduce their personal contributions to air pollution by reducing energy and vehicle use.

Toronto Public Health is working with federal and provincial governments and in collaboration with the Clean Air Partnership to promote the AQHI to Toronto's diverse population. The AQHI can be found on the Web site for Environment Canada's weather office, www.weatheroffice.gc.ca, click on the AQHI icon, then the Toronto AQHI link.

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