Seeking shelter from particulates in Hamilton’s air

The Air Quality Health Index monitoring station in the Beasley neighbourhood continues to measure the highest PM2.5 levels of any station in Ontario, writes Beatrice Ekoko.

OPINION Dec 10, 2018 by Beatrice Ekoko Hamilton Spectator

I’ve become obsessed with measuring my personal PM2.5 exposure. That’s respirable, fine particulate matter, the cause of respiratory illnesses and lung cancer, one-eighth the diameter of a human hair, viewable only with a microscope, so tiny that it can cross right into our bloodstream via the surfaces of the alveoli in our lungs. Any form of burning (combustion), can lead to particle pollution. My family is getting annoyed by my frequent calls for their attention concerning the state of our indoor air quality. They resent my minute-by-minute report from the hand-held everywhere I go these days. The monitor uses a laser system to read the particulate levels in the air within a 0.1 cubic foot volume. It’s unsettling how intimately and immediately levels can climb — feels like a violation. But my cries of “burnt toast is fouling the air in here!” and “smoking a bowl of weed has the readings on the monitor skyrocketing” are met with groans of exasperation (compare the readings in the kitchen at 33,000 to a good air reading at the 150 range, I’m not being dramatic). 

And this is the inside of my house, where I have things I can do to avoid PM exposure such as opening a window, installing a hood range, smoking less weed. But what about outside? What about things I can’t control, like the PM2.5 exposure from vehicle tailpipes, road debris, road salt, dust? 

Take a walk on any given day, through the core of our city. It’s not sweet. Hamilton continues to have some of the worst air quality in the provinces with the provincial Air Quality Health Index air monitoring station in the Beasley neighbourhood continuing to measure the highest PM2.5 levels of any station in Ontario. You will notice, as you walk along our arterials, accompanied by roaring, PM spewing 18-wheeler industrial trucks shortcutting through the core of our city, that the air monitor measures well above healthy levels. Passing by the school crossing guard I count myself fortunate to not be in her shoes, having to stand in the middle of traffic while crossing schoolchildren, so close to school bus exhausts and idling vehicles.

I worry. The kids walking to Hess school or playing in the schoolyard are surrounded by traffic because the school sits at York, Cannon, and Queen. Not to mention the noise pollution, the odour of fumes, the busyness, and danger of these arterial roads. I’m in sensory overdrive, and I’m an adult. What about the kids? One wonders why they have planted a school in the worst possible location, where some of the most vulnerable of our population get their tender lungs filled with large daily doses of PM2.5. It’s an equity issue: poorer communities that live, work and play by highways suffer from poorer health. They are likely to have higher rates of asthma. They are likely to die prematurely.

We are told that Hamilton’s airshed is a complicated affair. There’s our geography — the shape of the landscape, the escarpment that hugs the city acts as a bowl, cradling the bad air, the lake, these all influence our air quality. Prevailing winds that carry pollutants from the industrial core that contribute greatly to the complexity of our air challenges. With transboundary pollution (pollution that comes over outside of Hamilton), there’s not too much we can do except to urge government to continue working with other jurisdictions to improve air quality.

Granted, our air quality has improved since the happy decline of smog days, but there is much to be done to make it better for everyone because there is really no safe level of exposure to PM2.5. However, a legally binding PM2.5 standard with concentration guideline limits, like they have in places like Sweden would go a long way in Ontario. For starters, we can make choices about how we move around the city; walking and biking are zero emissions options.

We can take cleaner air routes and avoid busy roads. A British study showed that taking a side street route when walking through a city cuts a person’s air pollution exposure by half. We can speak up when the truck reroute review comes out in early 2019, to say that industrial trucks need to stay on the perimeter truck-route ring. We can work together to transform our streets to healthier streets with more trees and green spaces along our routes.

Beatrice Ekoko lives in Hamilton



I am working on a campaign to get people to give a damn about biodiversity.

Pondering parking lot potential

This is my latest piece in the

In all things, do the math. What is the return on investment (ROI) of the thing, how much energy goes in it, and to what end? When it comes to parking lots, the ROI for cities is dismal.

It’s estimated that, in America, there are eight parking spots for every car, covering up to 30 per cent of U.S. cities, and collectively taking up about as much space as the state of West Virginia. As well, the average parking space requires over 300 square feet to store a car while the car is not being used.

That’s an awful lot of underutilized space that could be going to housing, for instance. But parking requirements are mandatory for downtown areas, so the more parking allowed, the more encouraged we are to drive, giving us urban landscapes in support of driving (although, this is beginning to change, with bike-only condos coming in cities like Toronto).

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Take Care

This piece appeared in the under the title As a Society, We’re still in the Adolescent Phase.

A nation is formed by the willingness of each of us to share in the responsibility for upholding the common good.

— Barbara Jordan

We were wishing we had more lives to live on this planet. “It isn’t fair that we only get one life,” my daughter said. “One life is not enough to do and to be and to experience.”

Perhaps there is a parallel universe or two that we will one day be able to access and “know” that we are experiencing at the same time as our earth-life. But currently, this is it, and how do we want to live it? Also, we only get one world, but what a world!

And since it is spring, a time of renewal, and we’ve been celebrating the Earth throughout April, caring is something that has been on my mind — to care for this one life, for this one world, to care for other lives.

“Most people don’t care, as long as they get to do their favourite thing,” the cynical comedian Louis C.K. jests, in all seriousness.

“They won’t even do their second favourite thing.”

Louis goes on to describe a driver in the right lane who wants to make a left turn and “just shoves his car through everybody’s life,” cutting everyone else off. “What else could I do?” Going another route is “not my favourite way though. That only meets 99 per cent of my criteria.”

That is to say, our “favourite things” often end up causing others harm.

Why don’t we care more? For others. For our planet?

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Grow your kids Interest in Nature with a butterfly Garden

Here’s my latest piece in ParentsCanada Magazine about a family that breeds monarch butterflies and plants for nature.

butterfly_garden-2For Sunila and Devin Melanson, the adage “a family that plays together, stays together” is truer still when it comes to connecting in nature.

The Ancaster, Ont., couple consistently make it a priority to expose their children, Calvin, 12, and Sean, 10, to the natural world. “We have always tried to nurture the kids’ sense of wonder,” says Devin. “Even as toddlers, we encouraged them to see what native flowers they could find.”

Five years ago, concerned about the plight of the declining monarch butterfly, Devin and Sunila started trying to encourage pollinators on their property by planting 36 common milkweed plants. The family visited the Butterfly Conservatory in Cambridge, Ont., and got a book on how to raise monarchs.

Over the last couple years, the Melansons have deepened their commitment to raising and releasing monarchs by nurturing even more of them. Devin built a system that allows the caterpillars to create their chrysalis in a safe environment; the butterflies are then moved into an outdoor dining tent (a recent addition) that contains beds of milkweed and is in the partial shade of a maple tree. They’ll linger here for a short while before they are released to join fellow monarchs on their more than 1,000-km journey to Mexico.

To date, the Melansons have released more than 500 monarchs.

Sharing Knowledge

The Melansons have welcomed people interested in learning about the project into their yard and they continue to encourage other families to raise a monarch or two – providing them with a few eggs to get them started.

They are also protective of habitat that contains the food these butterflies need in order to thrive. Sean explains how he and his mother took action on noticing that a patch of milkweed by the local swimming pool was being cut down. “We talked to the administration there and they put up a sign saying don’t cut the milkweed.” The family is currently raising Swallowtail butterflies, too. “We found them on the parsley and dill – it’s what they like best,” says Sean. “They are in the chrysalis for the whole winter.”

The family frequently offers presentations to school groups and to the broader community through the Hamilton Pollinators Paradise Project, a locally based initiative whose goal is to plant a “highway” habitat of native species for pollinators across the city’s urban landscape.

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