Before asthma sufferer Robert Oliphant goes for a run near his home in Toronto, he checks his computer.
If the air quality health index is predicting a bad air day, he'll forego his outdoor run and get on the treadmill. If that's what it takes to prevent him from needing his inhaler, that's OK with Oliphant.
"The air quality health index is one of the most important tools for people with respiratory illness to manage their own health," said Oliphant, president of the Asthma Society of Canada, a featured speaker Wednesday at the North Central B.C. Clean Air Forum. "It looks at three very specific things that are mortality-related."
The air quality health index tracked by Environment Canada measures the three most harmful types of air pollution -- particulate matter, ground-based ozone, and nitrogen dioxide.
Oliphant said the average person takes 21,000 breaths per day, inhaling 14,400 litres of air, so bad air can bring dire consequences. According Oliphant, air quality issues led to the deaths of 300 British Columbians in 2012 and killed 5,900 across Canada. A total of 1,158 B.C. residents were hospitalized and 8,753 visited hospital emergency rooms last year due to air quality issues.
"Every Canadian should recognize that strenuous exercise is going to require more breathing, so if you're outside and are taking more breaths, you're taking in more pollution," he said. "So on bad air days, stay inside. Find an air-conditioned building."
He advises people with breathing problems to download a widget available on asthma.ca which allows users to type in their postal code to receive the daily air quality health index (AQHI) report for the area in which they live. By charting the AQHI readings over time while also taking into account pollen levels, humidity, and temperature variables, asthmatic people can start to predict what precautions they will need to take to avoid an asthma attack.
An estimated 3.2 million Canadians have asthma, an inflammatory disease of the airways. That represents 10 per cent of the population but doesn't take into account children under age 4, seniors 60 and older, diabetics and people with cardiac or blood pressure issues, all of whom are more prone to respiratory problems.
"One in three people are going to be directly affected by pollution immediately," said Oliphant.
When Oliphant flew into Vancouver Wednesday he checked the air quality index and found Prince George was the only B.C. city with a Level 3 count and a dust advisory was issued. All the other cities were Level 2 or less. He said most healthy people wouldn't notice a Level 3 reading, but asthma sufferers would.
"If we can't breathe, nothing else matters, and air pollution is the largest trigger for asthma," said Oliphant. "We are worried the government is shifting the burden of care onto people with asthma to only manage their triggers
"If we have industry, there will be emissions. Our job is to make sure we are monitoring those emissions and we are advocating to reduce them as much as possible. Communities at large need to constantly be vigilant about air quality and the way it affects its most vulnerable people. We are in this together. Everybody should be advocating for public transport and fewer cars and trucks on the road and fewer industrial emissions."