by Ron Hartling
The sole purpose of this page is to provide useful, Kingston-specific information for managing our household exposure to health-damaging airborne particulates. My personal lung-health goal is to keep my average daily intake of the most-damaging fine particulates (PM2.5) under the WHO-recommended maximum of 5 µg/m3, despite Kingston’s air typically exceeding that level. For ease of personal decision-making, overall daily risk levels are categorized according to the colour-coded table to the right. Note that, while most Canadian and US sources define “Level 1” as airborne concentrations less than 12 µg/m3, I employ “Level 0” to differentiate readings within the more evidence-based, less politically-influenced WHO healthy zone. This page is updated daily around 7 am.
Commentary as of Tuesday November 28 at 6:45 AM
Readings: Kingston’s PM2.5 airborne particulate readings remained mostly in the lower half of the Level-1 range yesterday morning, peaking at 8 µg/m3 but then fell back into the healthier Level-0 range in the afternoon. Our daily average was 4.9 µg/m3, just shy of Level 1. That was substantially less than Sunday’s 6.2 µg/m3. Overnight readings were variously 2 and 3 µg/m3.
Forecast summary: Kingston PM2.5 readings will likely remain in the Level-0 range today, overnight and tomorrow.
Detailed forecast: Environment Canada predicts northwestery winds continuing for most of today, shifting to westerly overnight. That almost always brings healthy Level-0 air into the Kingston area.
This morning’s AirNow PM2.5 airborne particulate map depicts exceptionally good air quality for northeastern North America, with only one tiny yellow-shaded area of Level-2 pollutant in the entire Eastern Seaboard,
AirNow’s map for tomorrow shows a more typical pattern of large Level-2 concentrations well to the southwest of Eastern Ontario. Given that winds wll be blowing from the northwest today, those pollutants will remain distant.
I had long assumed that, Kingston being small, non-industrial and somewhat environmentally minded, our air quality must be at comparatively healthy levels. The truly hazardous June spike in Kingston “fine particulate matter” dispelled that illusion, motivating me to research the worrisome reality. I had initially assumed that those high readings mostly reflected smoky clouds crossing our area from the out-of-control wildfires from Quebec and sometimes as far away as Alberta. Much-needed rainfall subsequently reduced those clouds to the point that the national smoke model map sometimes showed our area to be clear of such clouds for days at a time, yet our PM2.5 readings often remained unhealthily high.
Seeking a better understanding, I bulk-downloaded hourly PM2.5 readings from Kingston over the past four years into an Excel file to facilitate looking for meaningful patterns. Contrary to popular belief, It became quickly obvious that the vast majority of the particulates which we breathe come from far outside of our area. If much of the particulate loads were generated locally, there would be significant differences between weekends and weekdays, as well as between daylight and nighttime hours. In reality, there was relatively little change. There was some seasonality, with modestly higher average particulate levels during the North American winter heating season (most homes still being fossil-fuel heated) and during the average summer wildfire season, but not nearly as much as one would expect. All of which suggests that, apart from wildfires, the majority of particulates in our air must be generated by large industrial emitters which, by and large, operate 24/7.
This is not just a Kingston problem but appears to be Ontario-wide. For comparison purposes, I downloaded hourly readings for all of 2022 from Barrie, Belleville, Hamilton, London, Ottawa, Toronto and Windsor, dropping each set into the same spreadsheet to compute annual averages. It turned out that, of those centres, Kingston and Belleville had the lowest annual averages. What the data suggests is that the bulk of our province’s airborne particulates come from US industrial emitters. The Ontario variations may be attributed to the degree and nature of the industrialization in the overall region surrounding each centre. Then, seasonal wildfire smoke is layered on top of those other two components, resulting in an average annual exposure which consistently exceeds the WHO-recommended healthy limit, even outside wildfire season.
I don’t expect anyone to accept the above statements and conclusions without first satisfying themselves as to the evidence. For the detailed analysis leading to those conclusions, see my evidence page.
Health Impacts of Fine Particulate Matter
In a nutshell, breathing particulate matter kills, lowering one’s life expectancy and increasing susceptibility to a wide range of chronic disorders such as COPD (Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease), lung cancer, lung fibrosis, and asthma. The smaller those particles, the greater the damage from both short-term bursts and long-term exposure. As with lead poisoning, there is no safe level. PM2.5 readings measure the total mass of particles with diameters of 2.5 microns or less per cubic metre of air. While PM2.5 particles are only one of six airborne pollutants whose levels are used in a complex formula to compute the Ontario government’s Air Quality Index, they are the deadliest component of wildfire smoke and the only one for which the average person can realistically adjust their exposure.
Since we have no real influence on the polluters and no alternative to breathing the air wherever we may be, we are perforce left with the Hobson’s choice of simply accepting what is inflicted on us or taking common sense measures to limit our exposure to the extent feasible. For a deeper understanding of the health impacts, see the American Lung Association’s write-up on particle pollution.
For any given pollution level, some people are more vulnerable than others. These include: pregnant women; infants, children and teens; older adults (65+); those with lung or cardiovascular disease, diabetes or obesity; current or former smokers; and those with low socioeconomic status. US researchers have estimated that each 1 µg/m3 change upwards or downwards in average annual PM2.5 level costs or saves some 34,000 lives. Doing the math, Kingston’s current levels would already translate into some 90 Kingstonian deaths every year.
Government air quality sites appear quite reluctant to convey the health risks associated with differing PM2.5 readings. Based on scanning a number of NGO sites, I have compiled the definitional table below as a hopefully-useful estimate of the health risks associated with each of seven levels. Canada tends to follow the current US standard of an annual average of 12µg/m3, which is way too high based on more recent research. The US EPA is trying to reduce that to 8 or 9, but is unlikely to succeed given that country’s current political quagmire. At any rate, there is no actual enforcement mechanism in either Canada or the US. Far more credible is the evidence-based WHO-recommended annual average limit of 5 µg/m3, with the important stipulation that 24-hour average exposures should not exceed 15 µg/m3 more than 3 to 4 days per year. As illustrated in the chart to the left, Kingston’s annual average exceeded the WHO recommendation in every one of the past four years. Also, thus far in 2023, our daily average has already exceeded the 15 µg limit on 60 different days (more than one every five)!
The Big Picture
This summer of disastrous Canadian wildfires and consequent clouds of toxic air from coast to coast was the eminently predictable result of accelerating global heating and the failure of our federal and provincial governments to maintain the fire-fighting capacity to snuff out new wildfires very soon after their appearance, before they have to opportunity to grow out of control. The extra energy imparted by ever-rising temperatures into continent-scale weather systems enables those systems to stall in place, forcing the jet stream to divert around them rather than pushing such systems out over the Atlantic as before. As has happened in June of this year, near-stationary weather systems with limited or no precipitation have lots of time to dry out forest floors, turning them into tinder boxes for voracious wildfires. Such conditions have long been predicted in the climate models, and they have now manifested. Meanwhile, science-deaf provincial governments have been downsizing back-country firefighting to the point that we have far too little capacity to attack more than a small number of simultaneous wildfires, which spread rapidly and pump ever more smoke into the near-stationary but circulating air mass, hitting areas like Kingston which had long remained mostly unscathed during the usual May through October wildfire season.
The four years of Kingston air particulate data which I have been analyzing has demonstrated that the unprecedented number of bad-air days which we experienced this past summer represents the summation of two separate problems which each require fundamentally different solutions. During the 4-week period between June 5 and July 3, the particulate loading of our lungs represented fully 37% of the amount we had inhaled during all of 2022. Therefore, excess wildfire smoke is one problem which is specific to wildfire season and the airborne particulates blowing in from elsewhere (mostly the USA) is another which is year round. We can and should severely limit the wildfire smoke by requiring our governments to devote the necessary resources to snuff them before they can grow out of control. For incoming pollution from mostly industrial emissions, we have essentially no control over the source, which implies that we can only control how much of it actually gets into our lungs.
A Wildfire Solution
Whether or not you believe statements to the effect that this summer’s smoke emergency was not predictable (it was), it has obviously become our new reality this summer. Major wildfires severely ramp up our carbon emissions, thereby worsening the underlying causes of the fires. The above annual four-year comparison graph shows that wildfire smoke was the cause of Kingston’s annual average being substantially higher than both 2020 and 2022 (at the time, the 2021 wildfire season was the third-worst in our history). It is also the cause of the 2023 year-to-date average having been so dangerously high.
Wildfires must be seen and acted upon as a federal problem requiring a national solution. Constitutionally, federal jurisdiction has always been defined as matters which cross provincial boundaries (e.g., railways; waterways; air travel, telecommunications). Toxic smoke respects no boundaries and voters here in Kingston, have no influence on the resources that the governments of Quebec and Alberta, for example, chose to invest or not into forest firefighting, yet we pay the price in terms of our health and well-being. Federal responsibility for a national solution is therefore a classic no-brainer.
For a real solution, we voters must demand in no uncertain terms that the federal government act immediately to prevent this repeating in 2024 and future years by hiring, training and equipping a world-class cadre of firefighters ready and sufficient by next May to supress most wildfires before they can spread. We need to inform our elected representatives in no uncertain terms that their current preoccupation with self-interested political gamesmanship will no longer be tolerated. If they fail to come together to provide real leadership, we must demonstrate that we are ready to replace them with people who we can trust to put our and our families’ health and well-being above their petty squabbles. A mere 0.5% income tax hike would cover an initial $2 billion budget. Most Canadians would consider that a bargain and should accept no excuses.
A federal firefighting agency could be based in Alberta which had just such a program, named “Rapattack”. Their 63 professional firefighters were trained to rappel down from helicopters to douse wildfires while they still only covered a few hectares. They extinguished small fires before they could merge and cleared landing spaces for other helicopters to bring in crews and gear. Demonstrating his usual wisdom and foresight, then-Premier Jason Kenny terminated that program in 2019 in order to save $1.4 million, this despite the devastating Fort McMurray fire three years previously having cost some $9 billion. Hopefully enough of that trained group are still around and interested to serve as the nucleus for a new national service.
Personal Solutions to Protect Yourself and your Family
While you can do little if anything to change the particulate concentration of outdoor air at any point in time, there are measures which you and your loved ones can take to limit how much of that you actually inhale. They all require that you inform yourself of the current outdoor readings, which you can do by simply clicking on the link “Current and Recent Ontario Particulate Concentrations” below and then making it a prominent “Favourite” so that you can get to it with one click. For deciding on whether or not you should close the windows before bedtime, you could do the same with the Firesmoke Canada Predictive Model link below but, at times when wildfires aren’t an imminent threat, I’ve found the best predictor to be the Environment Canada Kingston Hourly Forecast. When that predicts winds blowing from east, southeast or, especially, south, then there’s a high probability of rising PM2.5 readings.
Realistically, protecting yourself implies reducing your cumulative annual exposure to something lower than typical Kingston air quality as displayed on the above four-year chart. It’s up to you to choose your preferred level by balancing the health risk reduction against the time, money and effort you are prepared to invest in achieving your objective. Because you have limited control over your particulate inhalation when you are away from home, your at-home air quality goal should ideally be kept sufficiently low to balance out the time away.
For outdoor exposure, you only have two choices: to limit the time you spend outdoors when Kingston particulate levels exceed a number of your choosing, or to wear a quality, NIOSH-approved (for snug fit) N95 mask. Those may be hard to find in Canadian stores, but you can order them from Amazon. For myself this past summer, I decided on masking whenever Kingston readings exceeded 8, and that seemed to work for me.
For indoors, HEPA-level air filtration is absolutely essential. I would strongly recommend that you buy a quality portable HEPA filter which incorporates a PM2.5 gauge so that you can accurately measure when that filter needs to be on, at what speed and for how long. While there are many choices, this particular model has worked well for me. It gets a large space down to a healthy 1 to 3 reading within 30 minutes to an hour depending on how bad the ambient air might be. I confirmed the accuracy of the gauge by running the filter briefly outdoors and comparing what it displayed to the most recent Kingston hourly reading. If you have a forced-air furnace and/or central home air conditioning, you should be able to reduce the load on your portable filter by installing a premium furnace filter with a MERV rating of at least 13 (see this explanatory article). Because the increased filtration will to some extent restrict air flow, it would be wise to contact the firm that installed your furnace whether a MERV 13 filter is appropriate. In my case, I was advised that my furnace could handle it provided that I changed the filter every two months. At an Amazon price of roughly $14 per filter in a six-pack, I deemed that eminently affordable given the value of better air quality throughout my home. If your air conditioning system automatically brings in outside air, you may have to figure out how to disable that during periods when outdoor air quality is poor. Since regular furnace filters are not true HEPA, the affordable alternative is multiple portable HEPA filters.
During heat waves during July and August, I faced the dilemma of my house getting stifling when closed up during bad-air spells. Living as I do near Lake Ontario, I’ve never previously needed or wanted air conditioning. Because of the requirement for external exhaust, a standard room air conditioner would have been very expensive to install given that all my windows are casement. Seeking alternatives, I came upon a new generation of tiny, quite inexpensive portable evaporative air conditioners. Their power requirements are minimal USB charging connections. Previously, we used compressive air conditioners, which are inherently environmentally damaging power hogs to cool our spaces or entire houses. These small evaporative unity don’t actually cool rooms. Instead, they cool the people to whom they are pointed. Again, there are many options, some of which may be poorly built or hokey. I’ve purchased two such units for use in different circumstances. The first is an evaporative unit into which one can drop ice cubes to enhance cooling and which oscillates to cool a larger area or group on a table or couch. The second is fixed and is not actually evaporative, instead using three little ice packs that you cool in your freezer, but gave me a good night’s sleep in a stuffy room. It’s fully portable in that it operates on a built-in lithium-ion battery. Both have reasonably quiet fans producing a bit of white noise which doesn’t disturb my sleep, and were in the $60 range. My planned long-term solution for next summer is adding a heat pump for which, while expensive, substantial government support is available (see the Sustainability Kingston website).
In the absence of any authoritative source of PM2.5 forecasts for the Kingston area, I have been for the past several months combining three main sources, correlating them intuitively based on observations of how daily observation of all three actually turned out in the next day’s readings. While accurate prediction of exact readings proved impossible, my best guesses have fairly reliably predicted the magnitude and approximate timing of increasing and decreasing trends, which is what one really needs to know in order to be in a position to take effective precautions.
Based on analysis of the most recent four years of Kingston hourly PM2.5 readings compared to Environment Canada data on measured hourly wind directions and speeds, I found a strong correlation with wind direction. I coupled that with analysis which demonstrated little or no correlation between actual PM2.5 readings and weekends versus weekdays or overnight versus working hours, thereby establishing that Kingston’s airborne particulate pollution is almost exclusively caused by emissions from other jurisdictions as opposed to local sources. Our MP2.5 rise significantly whenever winds from the south and southeast are bringing us particulates from the highly-industrialized Northeastern United States. During wildfire season, the impact of other wind directions depends on the current location of major smoke clouds.
I also refer to the US EPA Airnow map whenever south and southeast winds are included in the forecast, which provides a preview of what’s coming our way. By default, the map does not display Level 1 particulate clouds, presumably adhering to the highly-inadequate, politically-influenced US definition of an average annual PM2.5 exposure of 12 µg/m3 being the maximum “safe” level (much of the Northeastern US frequently exceeds that limit). In order to view the extent of Level 1 clouds, click the tiny “Show green contours” check box in both the Current and Forecast tabs. Also, be aware that the forecasts automatically stop at the Canada/US border.
Finally, I refer to the Canadian wildfire smoke model map, which does include Level 1 airborne pollution. Its limitations are three-fold. First, its Level 1 range is from 1 to 12 µg/m3. I consider anything under the evidence-based WHO annual average limit of 5 µg/m3 to be a reasonably healthy exposure level and therefore refer to it in my charts as “Level 0” with a green colouration, and deem higher Level 1 readings as moderately unhealthy in the long run. Unfortunately, there is no way to distinguish those in the map. Second, the underlying model is based on wildfire intensity, so is oblivious to the airborne industrial emissions which constitute the majority of Kingstonians’ annual exposure. Third, the depicted smoke clouds from Western and Northern Canada have typically dissipated sufficiently by the time that they reach Eastern Ontario as to have minimal impact on Kingston air quality.
The cause-and-effect relationship between those three sources is situation-dependent given that winds can only blow what particulates are or are not present in the air masses which they happen to pass through. In order to make that information useful for personal decision-making, I attempt to encapsulate into a one-line forecast summary what experience suggests is the most likely outcome of the juxtaposition of those three factors into a forecast risk level (0, 1, 2, etc.) for the next day. While no weather-related forecast can ever be perfect, my recent predictions have proven to be fairly reliable. To better quantify the reliability of those estimates, I have started to record my daily forecasts and, once I have two-weeks’ worth, will add them to the daily table below.
- I have found this to be the most useful of the available views of Kingston PM2.5 readings, covering the most recent 3-day period.
- You can choose to view it either as a table or a graph,
- Readings taken on the hour, every hour are automatically available 20 minutes later
- To see the full three days, choose the day before yesterday and then press the Refresh Page button
- This interactive map is published by the US Environment Protection Agency (EPA) and predicts PM2.5 concentrations for today and, optionally, tomorrow.
- Whenever Kingston winds are coming from the south, southeast and sometimes east, it constitutes an excellent predictor of our PM2.5 levels.
- It uses its own Air Quality Index (AQI), which doesn’t directly translate into PM2.5 readings. Click on the tiny “show green contours” check box within the Contours box to the left on both the Current and Forecast tabs to view their “Good” regions with PM2.5 readings anywhere between one and the grossly inadequate US standard of 12µg/m3. Angry yellow is what they term Moderate, which is PM2.5 readings between 12 and 35.5, the upper range of which we would consider unhealthy for at-risk people. Orange (35.5 through 55.4) is likewise unhealthy for at-risk.
- An interactive, animated 48-hour prediction of North American smoke intensities,which provides an excellent current overview of major, smoke-filled air masses such as those described above.
- Controls at the bottom left allow you to control the speed, pause and scroll to a particular day and time
- Click three times on “+” button at the upper right of the window to zoom in sufficiently to see Kingston, and drag the map to centre Kingston on your screen.
- A simplied 1 to 10 scale which is based on a complex formula for aggregating a number of different airborne pollutants.
- Given that PM2.5 is the most dangerous of smoke fire airial pollutants and the only one for which we can realistically limit our exposure, the mixed AQHI index is arguably less pertinent than current MP2.5 measures for determining how best to protect one’s health.
- The index is updated hourly. Scroll down the page to view the Kingston entry.
- Written in a very readable manner.
- For a more in-depth, technical version of this information, see The impact of PM2.5 on the human respiratory system
- This is the official Government of Canada information and advice on living with wildfire-infused air