August 26, 2015 8:20 pm
Updated: August 27, 2015 8:11 pm

Calgary air pollution over last day equal to 4hrs in car with smoker: online tool

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WATCH ABOVE: A new online tool called “Share My Air” gets away from scientifically-dense concepts, and puts air pollution into terms people can relate to: cigarette smoke. Erika Tucker looks at Calgary’s ratings.

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CALGARY – A new online tool that makes it easy to understand air pollution is coming in handy for Albertans concerned about the smoke being blown in from western wildfires, especially as the haze caused Calgary’s air quality to hit the top of health risk scale on Tuesday.

The 23-year-old American creator says “Share My Air” tries to get away from scientifically-dense concepts, and puts air pollution into terms people can relate to: cigarette smoke.

To use the tool, just go to the site, click on any city, and see how the air pollution rates. It will give information summaries based on the last 24 hours, the last month and the last six months. The data is updated hourly so ratings will change throughout the day. The web tool converts air pollution exposure in your city of choice to time spent in a car with a smoker, living with a smoker, or the number of equivalent cigarettes smoked.

A screengrab showing air pollution in Calgary on Wednesday Aug. 26, 2015 in the afternoon.

Screengrab 'Share My Air'

Founder and CEO Kevin Kononenko, who has a background in environmental sciences and entrepreneurship, said he found studies that equated air pollution exposure to cigarette exposure to create Share My Air. He took live feeds of air pollution readings from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) AirNow database—a government site that shares data across Canada and the U.S. hourly—and converted them to cigarette equivalents.

“People can visualize these cigarette-oriented messages. So when I say, in the past 24 hours, in Calgary has been like sitting for four hours plus in a car with a smoker, people can wrap their brain around that and visualize it and say, ‘I can tell you how bad that is, it’s pretty darn bad,’ as opposed to saying, ‘Well, what does a 140 micrograms per cubic metre mean?’”

Kononenko notes there’s an extrapolation factor to the data.

“When it says living in Calgary is like spending 11 months, or whatever it would be…based on today’s readings, that’s an extrapolation. Assuming that if that one day was consistent all year, then it would lead to that number,” he said.

A screengrab from a new online tool shows the cities with air pollution data available.

Screengrab Share My Air

Alberta Health Services medical officer of health Dr. Jason Cabaj wasn’t initially familiar with the new tool, but said it’s important to keep in mind factors that complicate comparisons of health consequences from different exposures.

“The website uses open access data from the U.S. government to estimate equivalent levels of one air pollutant (fine particulate matter), which is predominant in wood smoke and a major component of tobacco smoke as well,” he said in an email to Global News.

Kononenko said particulate matter and smoking are both associated with diseases like lung cancer, heart disease, stroke and asthma attacks.

“One of the challenges that you face with air and cigarettes is that it’s such a long-term thing,” he said. “So the longer you smoke it or inhale air pollution, the more the risk factor arises. For me, with air pollution, I want to talk about a very immediate consequence, which is asthma attacks.

“When you see a day like this, where it’s spiking up to 140 micrograms per cubic metre … more children will be having asthma attacks in the Calgary area based on that. And so that’s what I choose to focus on because it’s very real time.”

Share My Air was released to public last Thursday, and he said reaction has been positive.

“People just love the concept of looking around the map and hovering over one thing or the other and saying, ‘Oh, I wonder how it compares to other cities, be it Los Angeles…how does my air pollution compare to that?’” he said.

Editor’s note: This story’s headline has been corrected from saying the air pollution in Calgary over the last 24 hours was equal to smoking over 50 cigarettes to saying it’s equal to spending four hours in the car with a smoker. The predicted air pollution this year in Calgary, if air quality were to remain the same as today, would be equal to smoking 52 cigarettes. 

© 2015 Shaw Media

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