Hamilton chokes on record smog levels
AQI hits 103 downtown in Ontario's worst day

Barry Gray, the Hamilton Spectator

The smog that hung over Hamilton yesterday afternoon was the result of a thermal inversion.

Devon Slater, the Hamilton Spectator

Air Quality Index

Nicole Macintyre- The Hamilton Spectator - Oct. 27, 2004

Hamilton gasped its way into history yesterday with the worst smog advisory ever issued in Ontario.

The city hit a record 103 on the air quality index at 2 p.m.

A reading of more than 100 is considered very poor. It had never been recorded in Ontario since the government began monitoring air quality more than a decade ago. The previous record of 99 was reached last year in Sault Ste Marie.

"It's quite serious," said John Steele, Ministry of Environment spokesperson, who explained the poor air quality was a localized problem.

As other Ontario cities enjoyed a clear, sunny day, Steele said Hamilton was overtaken by a thermal inversion. With the help of the escarpment, a mass of warm air trapped cold air and all the city's pollutants in the downtown.

"We're kind of living in our own soup," said McMaster professor Brian McCarry, who chairs Clean Air Hamilton.

Thermal inversions are common in the spring and fall, he said. But this one was particularly bad.

Thankfully for residents clutching their chests, inversions typically pass quickly. By last evening air quality in downtown Hamilton had already returned to acceptable levels.

While it's normally fair game to blame Americans for causing our bad air days, McCarry said yesterday's smog advisory, which was the latest in the season ever issued by the province, was of our own making.

"It's like (passing gas) in a tent," he said with a laugh.

The extreme smog warning should be a wake-up call about the amount of pollution produced locally, McCarry said, advising residents not to point their fingers at the steel plants too quickly.

"It's not just industry. A lot of it is cars and trucks."

A large amount of fine particulate matter, which comes from vehicles, industry and road dust, was recorded in Hamilton's air yesterday.

The air quality index is based on carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, sulphur dioxide, total reduced sulphur and suspended particles. A reading of less than 32 is good. Smog advisories are issued above 50.

Josie Hodder noticed the heavy air as soon as she walked outside yesterday morning. After a recent trip to a mountain town in Europe where the only industry was a bakery, she said she's noticed how bad the air is in Hamilton.

"It's almost like you can't breathe," she said yesterday in the city's core, where dirty smelling air clung in thick fog.

Rob Hall, director of the health protection branch, was struck by how quickly the city's air became polluted.

At 10 a.m. the reading was just 23, a good reading on the air quality index. By noon it had increased to 58 and hit 103 two hours later.

"It almost seemed explosive," said Hall.

Hamilton Mountain reached an AQI of 65 late yesterday afternoon.

West Hamilton topped out at 80.

While people suffering from respiratory conditions are always advised to stay inside during smog advisories, Hall said yesterday's extremely bad air quality likely affected more people than normal.

While people wouldn't have dropped dead in the streets, Neil Johnston, epidemiologist at the Firestone Institute for Respiratory Health at St. Joseph's Hospital, said the heavy smog would have easily escalated respiratory conditions and increased hospital admissions yesterday and perhaps even for the next couple of days.

"103 is...wow," he said dumbfounded by the reading. "That's incredible."

Hall said public health will be following up with the city's hospitals to determine the impact of the smog warning. As of last night, emergency rooms had not seen an influx of patients suffering from respiratory problems.

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