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Air Quality Health Index

On June 24, 2015, the Province of Ontario announced that the Air Quality Health Index (AQHI) has now replaced the Air Quality Index (AQI) to report air quality in Ontario.

The AQHI is a new approach to communicating about air quality that combines air pollution (smog) information with the risk of adverse health effects. The AQHI can assist people at higher risk of negative health impacts from poor air quality (e.g.,children, seniors, those with heart and lung conditions) to make healthy behaviour and activity choices (e.g., avoiding strenuous activity when the air quality is poor). The old AQI had a scale of 0-100+, with values usually in the range of 10-60, and poor air quality designated as values above 50. The AQHI is a simplified scale from 1-10+ with three categories “low, moderate and high risk” within this range. The higher the number, the greater the health risk.

A few years ago, the Government of Canada developed the AQHI and piloted the index in selected cities across Canada. Environment Canada began to report daily AQHI reporting for Hamilton on its website in July 2011. Hamilton has been test-piloting the AQHI since June 11, 2011 and Public Health Services (PHS) has undertaken AQHI outreach in the community engaging the general population of Hamilton at special events between the months of June to October 2011 and 2012.

In 2013, AQHI outreach focused on the “at risk” population with pre-existing respiratory conditions. Health professionals in the City of Hamilton, including those at the Firestone Clinic, North Hamilton Community Health Centre and Hamilton Family Health were provided with the AQHI. In 2014, focus on engaging seniors in the City of Hamilton about the AQHI was done via in-person presentations at various seniors’ buildings throughout the City. In 2015, focus on engaging people with existing respiratory conditions, such as Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), was done via in person presentations and participation with the Caring for My COPD program offered at North Hamilton Community Health Centre (NHCHC).

As part of this change, the provincial Smog Alert program has been discontinued, and smog advisories/smog watches will no longer be issued by the Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change (MOECC) in Ontario. In place of the Smog Alert program, a new air quality alert program is now in effect.

Special Air Quality Statement (SAQS): When the AQHI is forecast to reach, or has reached, the high risk category (i.e., “7” or greater) for one to two hours, a SAQS will be issued. A SAQS will also be issued if the AQHI has not reached the high risk category, however there is an air quality concern for a particular area that is expected to last for at least three hours. The purpose of a SAQS is to be precautionary and to be vigilant of your health.

Smog and Air Health Advisory (SAHA): For situations where the AQHI is forecast to reach, or has reached, the high risk category and is expected to last for at least three hours, a SAHA will be issued.

The City of Hamilton has had a Corporate Smog Response Plan since 2000 to address the need to adapt and respond to poor air quality days and smog advisories. The Corporate Smog Plan was based on the old AQI and Smog Alerts. The responses and actions under the Plan are updated annually by PHS with other City Departments. PHS staff are reviewing the need to update and refine the Corporate Smog Response Plan, now that the Province has moved to using the AQHI.

The AQHI is available to the public on-line through the Ontario MOECC website located at www.airqualityontario.com/aqhi, as well as Environment Canada website located at www.airhealth.ca. Information is also available by telephone by dialing 1-800-387-7768 (toll-free) or 416-246-0411 in Toronto  1-800-221-8852. Radio and television programs will also report on the AQHI value and continue to provide information about smog and actions that can be taken to reduce smog-causing emissions.

For additional information or to enquire about the new AQHI forecasting process for Ontario, please contact Matthew Lawson, Manager, Environmental Health with PHS, by calling 905-546-2424 Ext. 5823, or via email at Matthew.Lawson@hamilton.ca.

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