June 11, 2021

There's something in the air

UCalgary researchers study air quality across Calgary and its effects on health
Summer (left) and winter (right) NO2 (nitrogen dioxide) levels in Calgary, estimated from 99 summer and 94 winter samples, shown in the insets.
Summer (L) and winter (R) nitrogen dioxide levels in Calgary from 99 summer and 94 winter samples. Photo courtesy of Isabelle Couloigner, Fr.Ing, PhD, Research Associate, Department of Geography, University of Calgary

Air quality and pollution vary depending on where you live in Calgary, and researchers in the University of Calgary’s Department of Geography are exploring how this can have an impact on family health. This past week, Canada celebrated National Environment and Clean Air Day. In recognition of these dates, we highlight research published between 2017 and 2021 by Dr. Stefania Bertazzon, PhD’98, and Dr. Rizwan Shahid, MGIS’05, PhD’14, and their team, who used a “geospatial” lens to analyze air quality throughout the city.

By examining air conditions from a geospatial perspective, researchers can point to potential health concerns and inequities. Air pollution levels vary considerably in large cities like Calgary, yet the regulatory network consists of only three stations where air quality is measured, from which the Air Quality Health Index is issued.

“We need to understand where pollution occurs over space. Knowing where pollution is empowers us to protect our health, to be smart about where we breathe while walking and spending time outdoors,” says Bertazzon.

Bertazzon’s research deployed nearly 100 air quality monitors throughout Calgary with the help of many volunteers who hosted monitors on their property. Air quality data was modelled using geospatial analysis and the mapping power of Geographical Information Science (GIS), in a research effort involving graduate and undergraduate geography students. The team modelled several pollutants that pose health concerns, including nitrogen dioxide (NO2), shown in the maps below.

Shahid made use of geospatial technologies to develop story maps to visually communicate seasonal changes in air pollution in the form of “talking maps” that can tell a story and can be tailored to the intended audience. Pollution levels change seasonally over space and tend to be higher near major roads, which is a concern as some of Calgary’s most popular pedestrian and bicycle paths run just next to the busiest roads and more polluted corridors. By communicating knowledge of air pollution through the story maps, Bertazzon and Shahid are boosting accessibility in understanding air pollution with Calgarian residents.

Health implications for children

Children walking or biking to school or getting dropped off by bus can be at risk of inhaling dangerous gases. Shahid says prolonged exposure to polluting gases can increase the risk of respiratory-related illnesses, of increased body mass index (BMI) and of harmful effects on neurodevelopment, which can be linked with fluctuation in children’s attention.

Although walking to work or school is perceived as a healthier alternative to driving, it is important to be conscious of where we walk. “Pollution levels in our city are generally quite safe; however, we may walk in areas where pollution is higher,” Bertazzon warns. “It Is important to be selective of the air we breathe as this can have impacts on our general health and well-being.”

Up-and-coming research

Bertazzon and Shahid are currently working on a project to analyze the geographical residence of people within Calgary who suffer from asthma, which may be associated with air pollution. Both researchers are studying the geographical residential pattern of people who have visited emergency rooms for acute asthma problems. Preliminary findings suggest that, over time, the residential pattern of these individuals is becoming more and more clustered, potentially pointing to increasing disparities between less-polluted western communities and more-polluted eastern portions of Calgary.

Stefania Bertazzon is a professor in UCalgary’s geography department. After completing her master’s at the University of Venice in 1992, she completed her PhD at UCalgary in 1998. Prior to joining UCalgary, Bertazzon worked in the financial and retail sectors and held teaching appointments in Italy and Germany.

Rizwan Shahid is an adjunct assistant professor, also in UCalgary’s geography department. After finishing his master’s in computer science at Preston University in 1998, Shahid completed both his Master of Geographic Information Systems and PhD in geography at UCalgary. He currently works with Alberta Health Services as a geographic information scientist.

Together and separately, they have published research on air pollution in 2017, 2019, 2020 and 2021.

The initiatives highlighted within this article connect to SDGs 3 and 11 of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. 

The University of Calgary’s Institutional Sustainability Strategy provides a roadmap for continuous improvement in our pursuit of excellence and leadership in sustainability. We aim to be a Canadian post-secondary education leader in sustainability in our academic and engagement programs, administrative and operational practices, and through supporting community and industry in their aims for leadership in sustainability. Learn more about UCalgary’s leadership in sustainability.