Outdoor Air Quality
The Air Quality Health Index (AQHI) is a scale designed to help you understand what the quality of the air around you means to your health. It’s a tool developed by health and environmental professionals to communicate the health risk posed by air pollution. There are many different types of air pollutants from a wide range of sources. Some of these pollutants have been found to contribute to cardiovascular and respiratory disease. The pollutants are often lumped together under the term smog.
The scale is designed to help you make decisions to protect your health and the environment by:
- Limiting exposure to air pollution
- Adjusting your activity during episodes of increased air pollution and encouraging physical activity on days when the index is lower
- Reducing your personal contribution to air pollution
The AQHI provides a number from 1 to 10+ to indicate the level of health risk associated with local air quality. The higher the number, the greater the health risks and precautions should be taken. The index provides specific advice for people who are especially vulnerable to the effects of air pollution as well as the general public.
The following table provides the health messages for at-risk individuals and the general public for each of the AQHI Health Risk Categories:
|Health Risk||Air Quality Health Index||
|Low||1 - 3||Enjoy your usual outdoor activities.||Ideal air quality for outdoor activities.|
|Moderate||4 - 6||Consider reducing or rescheduling strenuous activities outdoors if you are experiencing symptoms.||No need to modify your usual outdoor activities unless you experience symptoms such as coughing and throat irritation.|
|High||7 - 10||Reduce or reschedule strenuous activities outdoors. Children and the elderly should also take it easy.||Consider reducing or rescheduling strenuous activities outdoors if you experience symptoms such as coughing and throat irritation.|
|Avoid strenuous activities outdoors. Children and the elderly should also avoid outdoor physical exertion.||Reduce or reschedule strenuous activities outdoors, especially if you experience symptoms such as coughing and throat irritation.|
People most at-risk
Some people are at a higher risk of health problems when exposed to air pollution, including:
- pregnant individuals
- infants and young children
- people who work outdoors
- people involved in strenuous outdoor exercise
- people with an existing illness or chronic health conditions, such as:
- mental illness
- lung or heart conditions
Exposure to air pollutants
Exposure to air pollutants can cause a range of symptoms. People with lung or heart disease may experience increased frequency and/or severity of symptoms, and increased medication requirements.
People who are otherwise healthy may have the following symptoms:
- irritated eyes
- increased mucus production in the nose or throat
- difficulty breathing especially during exercise
Some people may be unaware that they have lung or heart disease. Consult your doctor if you have any: chest pain or tightness, sweating, difficulty breathing without exertion, consistent cough or shortness of breath, fluttering in the chest or feeling lightheaded.
Smog and Air Health Advisories
A Smog and Air Health Advisory (SAHA) is issued jointly by Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC), and the Ontario Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change when the Air Quality Health Index is forecasted to reach or has reached the high-risk category (7-10+), and is expected to last at least 3 hours.
During a SAHA, everyone is at-risk, however health risks are greater for: older adults, infants and young children, people with chronic illnesses, people who work in the heat, people who exercise in the heat, homeless people and low-income earners.
Follow these tips during a SAHA:
- Stay away from areas with automobile traffic and limit the amount of time you spend in areas where pollution can be elevated, like busy streets during rush hour and industrial zones, especially when you exercise.
- Stay indoors with central air conditioning.
- Have an adequate supply of medication (more than 5 days) and develop a plan together with your health care provider for how to manage your condition during periods of poor air quality.
- When outdoors, if your breathing becomes difficult or uncomfortable, stop or reduce strenuous physical activities. If you experience irritation of the eyes, nose or throat, shortness of breath or other respiratory symptoms, you should take action to reduce your exposure to outdoor air pollution.
Organizers of outdoor activities and sporting events should consider:
- Consulting the AQHI before and during an event, as AQHI levels may change quickly.
- Reducing the intensity of the activity or rescheduling the event when the health risk is moderate (between 4 and 6 on the AQHI), especially if participants start experiencing symptoms.
- Rescheduling the event when the health risk is high (7 or more on the AQHI).
Wildfire smoke and air quality
Wildfire smoke can be harmful to everyone’s health even at low concentrations. For more information on the impact of wildfire smoke on air quality, visit www.canada.ca/en/environment-climate-change/services/air-quality-health-index/wildfire-smoke.html.