Crossposted from Torontoist.
It’s been about a month now since Toronto (in conjunction with the province and the feds) launched the Air Quality Health Index (AQHI) pilot project. And yet, very few Torontonians seem to understand what the AQHI actually means for their health and behaviour on any given day. Given that, a closer look is in order.
Unfortunately, just like Toronto’s air, the closer one looks the less clear things become. Listening to the radio in the morning, it’s easy to get the impression that the AQHI replaces the old Air Quality Index (AQI), which is where we used to get the binary “smog alert/no smog alert” announcements. Not so, Toronto Health tells Torontoist, “The Air Quality Index (smog alert) is a scale that measures the quality of the air based on single highest pollutant, whereas the new Air Quality Health Index (AQHI) measures the combined health risks/effects of multiple pollutants. In other words, the two indices are not comparable and cannot and should not be linked.”
Don’t worry, that doesn’t make a tonne of
carbon sense to us either, but basically it means that it’s impossible to say, for example, “a 5 under the new system is equivalent to a smog alert under the old system.” Add to the confusion that, as Mike Smith points out in NOW, a high Air Quality rating actually means we’re experiencing low air quality. “One wonders,” speculates Smith, “if the rather more obvious name, the Pollution Index, was avoided because of its effects on tourism.”
Or perhaps its effects on reelection. The federal government, which is spearheading this initiative, has promised to create “clean air” (which many critics have suggested is a deliberate attempt to try and distract the public from its inaction on the climate crisis). Of course, it’s very hard to convince people the air is clean when they’re experiencing a “smog alert” every other day. Hearing that Air Quality is at a 4 or a 5 makes everything sound much cleaner. On Wednesday last week, for example, the AQHI was at a 3, even though there was a smog alert in effect. The smog alert went unreported by at least one major Toronto radio station, which instead just informed their listeners of the AQHI.
If you’re interested in the specifics of the AQHI 1-10+ scale, there’s a table on the government’s site. Apparently last Wednesday’s smog day represented “ideal conditions for outdoor activities.”
A list of all AQHI numbers reported to date does not appear to be available, but our observation has been that it’s tended to stay around 3-5 so far. Again, that makes some political sense. Just as the American government’s terrorism risk index can never fall below “elevated” (not only is it in the Republican party’s interest to keep its citizens afraid of an attack, it would be a disaster for this administration if an attack took place while the alert level was low), it’s politically disadvantageous for the AQHI to ever rise too high. There’s therefore reason to be at least a bit suspicious of what levels of toxic and carcinogenic chemicals our government has decided are “safe” for us to breathe.
On the other hand, some individuals are actually more “at risk” of respiratory problems than others, and they’ll hopefully find this new system useful in predicting when they’ll experience the most difficulty breathing. If the system works as it’s supposed to, it could help save lives by giving asthmatics, for example, more warning of when it’s safe for them to go outside.
That being said, ultimately Toronto Public Health says, “it is our intention that the AQHI will replace the existing Air Quality Index (smog alert) once it is fully implemented in Ontario.” A few years after that and maybe we’ll stop using the word “smog” altogether. Is our tinfoil hat on a bit too tight, or is possible that at least one motivation behind the AQHI is to eliminate smog though Orwellian “newspeak” methods, rather than real ones?