It’s Clean Air Day in Canada: A History and Predictions

June 2nd is Clean Air Day in Canada (which we’ve been quietly celebrating since 1999). It’s a day that doesn’t get a great deal of interest from most Canadians because we generally have pretty good air quality. This year might be different given what we went through with the pandemic. But in the summer of 2021, most Canadians will likely be too focused on celebrating the slow reopening of society than to think about the origins of the laws that were created to help protect us. 

Clean air started to get a major focus in 1952 when the great smog descended on London.  On December 2nd a noxious, 30-mile-wide air mass, full of acrid sulfur particles descended on the city of London—and got worse every day after that. Many experts now estimate the Great Smog (caused by localized industrial air pollution and from coal heating popular at the time) claimed at least 8,000 lives, and perhaps as many as 12,000. After all that, it still took until 1956 for the first Clean Air act in the UK. Very early when you consider that the USA only passed their clean air act in 1970.

For some reason we are really slow to make clearly needed improvements to policies that affect the built environment even if it directly affects our health.  

These days all conversations about air quality have shifted to what’s happening inside. That’s not to say that the debate about outdoor air pollution isn’t still extremely timely. We did, after all, get some of the best outdoor air days because of a lack of vehicle traffic. It’s truly exciting to see electric vehicles ramping up (my next vehicle just might be the new F-150 lighting…Joe Biden made that look cool), and with a move to renewables, we could begin to see the real improvements that we envisioned when legislators started to conceive of clean air acts 65 years ago.

Many are predicting (and I’ll join that bandwagon), that indoor air quality will be the next frontier to be more heavily regulated. To be fair, there are a patchwork of workplace regulations in place at several levels of government (in BC we have WorkSafeBC which has CO2, CO and some other chemical limits for indoor air), but those regulations are very infrequently enforced and there are no built in incentives for improving indoor air quality. It’s also worth mentioning that engineering standards have been generally shifting to make the minimum amount of air supplied to spaces lower every year to save energy (which is what often makes it into building codes). The obvious problem with increasingly lowering the amount of outside air into buildings (which we have been doing since the 80’s to save energy) is that you just increase the chances that whatever gets inside of a space (like CO2 building up with too many people) will stay there for a very long period of time. Whether that’s radon, chemicals or a virus, that’s something we clearly shouldn’t be trading for saving energy. 

In reality there are ways to both save energy and improve indoor air quality. It’s just that most building codes and building designers haven’t really been forced to balance the trade offs between saving some energy with saving labour hours (bad air quality leads to lower productivity) and lives (let’s just lump CO, radon and viruses into this category). 

It took 12 months for the BCCDC to accept that COVID 19 is airborne which means that after another 12 months they might agree that most of the cases resulted from when people were inside (given outbreaks were in colder weather with fewer people outside). And if history is any lesson on how slowly these things move, it will mean we can start seeing better regulation around indoor air quality in 2024 (i.e. if a smog hits and kills 12,000 people and it took 4 years to come up with a clean air act, then you’d hope with what just happened it wouldn’t take longer). 

Those predictions aside, there will be early movers to reduce risks and improve human health. Just like there were people who en-mass decided to switch from coal heating to safer gas heating in London well before 1956. 

All hail the early adopters right? Let’s hope they can drag along the legislation that will inevitably crawl along beside common sense and early innovators.

Let’s start now then. Design beyond ventilation minimums, monitor indoor air and get involved to help create the world’s first indoor air day.