Last Monday, smoke blew in from forest fires in Quebec and gave Ottawa its worst-ever recorded air quality readings, just in time to get our attention for Clean Air Day on Wednesday.

 

On Clean Air Day, Ottawa introduced the Air Quality Health Index (AQHI), a scale from 1 to 10+ for measuring the presence of three major pollutants -- ozone, nitrogen oxide and particulate matter. The daily readings, available at www.airhealth.ca, let people, particularly those with respiratory or heart conditions, time their outdoor activities for when breathing is safer.

 

Spreading greater awareness of air quality problems is the first step to mobilizing a desire to do something about them. Health Canada, after all, estimates that air pollution causes 5,900 deaths a year in our major cities.

 

A trend of generally warmer temperatures has exacerbated the problem. Last year’s cool, wet summer gave us a break from smog, but air quality advisories are likely to mount again this year.

 

OC Transpo and STO, meanwhile, played to their strengths on Clean Air Day, offering two-for-one fares for all riders, encouraging them to bring a friend and reminding us that mass transit helps keep pollution down year-round.


It might not be obvious as you suck fumes from the rush hour conga line of buses queued up on Slater or Albert downtown, but OC Transpo is right out front in the fight against air pollution, and its performance keeps getting better.


Our diesel-electric hybrid buses, in their current form, are only truly effective on downtown routes with plenty of stops, as braking recharges the buses’ batteries.


For the long-haul routes, we still use conventional buses, but this spring the city decided on a $155-million purchase of 226 new models, featuring more efficient, less polluting engines, another win for Ottawa air quality.


The major benefit from our buses, of course, is in the number of cars it takes off the road, in reducing the amount of pollution generated by each commuter. Light rail, should it ever come to pass, would see greater volumes of passengers moved with even less of a toll on the air we breathe.


Word seems to be getting around. It was encouraging to see, according to a poll commissioned by the Ottawa Sun, that transit and light rail top the list of important issues for the coming municipal election, picked by 32 per cent of respondents, twice as many as those who picked taxes, the number two choice.


As one of a growing number of city dwellers with respiratory problems, I appreciate it from the bottom of my lungs.


– Steve Collins lives, writes and walks in Ottawa; ottawaletters@metronews.ca