Clearing the air of hidden pollutants

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By Isaac Rudik at Compliance Solutions Canada Inc. (

Ottawa is getting serious about “hidden” air pollution, taking a tough new stance on invisible particulates that are as deadly as the thick, brown haze that used to hang over cities all summer. New generation gas detectors will keep businesses compliant without adding to costs.

There was a time when smog not only was a major health threat, as far back as the 1960s and 1970s it was often the source of jokes on late night comedy shows. While much of the visible smog – that thick, brown haze that hangs over cities on hot, sticky days – has been reduced, hidden air pollution remains a thorny problem with negative effects on health, climate change and everyone’s quality of life.

Much of it comes from a wide range of often colourless, odourless gasses and, finally, Ottawa is taking steps to rein in the pollution they create.

In late spring, Environment Minister John Baird unveiled an action plan targeting three specific areas:
• Introducing concentration limits of volatile organic compounds in 98 categories of consumer products including personal care items like nail polish, adhesives, sealants, caulking and other miscellaneous products.
• Establishing concentration limits for 49 categories of architectural coatings such as paints, stains and varnishes.
• Establishing limits on 14 types of coatings and surface cleaners used for refinishing or repairing painted surfaces of automobiles, trucks and other vehicles or equipment.

Moreover, just last week the feds took action on bisphenol A – a serious industrial contaminent – and introduced tougher food and product safety legislation.

Widespread problem

Some 308,000 tonnes of fine particulate matter were emitted into the atmosphere in 2006, the last full year for which numbers are available. Residential wood burning and industrial activities accounted for 72%.

Roughly 1.9-million tonnes of volatile organic compounds polluted the atmosphere the same year. Industrial activities, transportation, and paints and solvents accounted for 71% of this total. Meanwhile, about 2.3-million tonnes of nitrogen oxides were emitted to the atmosphere in 2006. The transportation and industrial sectors accounted for 68%. And some 1.9-million tonnes of sulphur oxides were emitted the same year, 69% of it from industry.

Where there isn’t always a direct correlation between levels of air emissions and smog, it often happens because they either move in from other areas or from chemical interactions between airborne pollutants. At the same time, a decrease in one pollutant can actually lead to an increase inothers. For example, ground-level ozone combines with nitrogen oxides reducing ground-level ozone, a process called “ozone scavenging.” But in some parts of Canada, lower levels of nitrogen oxides have actually resulted in less ozone scavenging and thus higher levels of ground-level ozone.

Breathe more easily

There is a way to both reduce the pollution problem and meet the tougher new rules coming from the government. A combustible gas detector will sniff out a wide range of gases including some that are toxic as well as so-called nuisance vapours.

For example, it can sense everything from natural gas and propane or butane to methane, acetone, alcohol, ammonia, carbon monoxide, gasoline and jet fuel, hydrogen sulfide and smoke as well as solvents, thinners and naphtha.

One of its key benefits is that it offers both audible and visible alarms by using a low power semi-conductor sensor that picks up as little as 50 parts per million of methane. While it takes five minutes to warm up, once the unit is humming the response time is less than two seconds when something foul is in the air.

As negotiations begin this fall to replace the Kyoto Treaty, provincial and federal government ministries are going to be taking an increasing hard line on pollutants that harm health and the atmosphere. There are new ways for businesses to deal with the problem without taking a chunk out of profits even as they take a chunk out of air pollution.

E-mail Isaac at or phone him at 905-761-5354.