B.C. Air Quality

Table of Common Pollutants

This table is from A Primer on Air Quality in British Columbia, posted on the Environment Canada site. It was produced by the Ministry of Environment, Environmental Assessment Office, Environment Canada, and the Cities of Kamloops, Kelowna and Prince George. Not included here are the pollutants that influence the larger atmosphere, causing global environmental problems: stratospheric ozone depletion and global climate change.



Description and Sources

Health Impact


Particulate Matter (PM)

Dust, soot, and tiny bits of solid material.

PM10 — Particles smaller than 10µm (microns) in diameter.

Far too small to see — 1/8th the width of a human hair.

• Road dust; road construction

• Mixing and applying fertilizers/ pesticides

• Forest fires


• Coarse particles irritate the nose and throat, but do not normally penetrate deep into the lungs.

• PM is the main source of haze that reduces visibility.

• It takes hours to days for PM10 to settle out of the air.

• Because they are so small, PM2.5 stays in the air much longer than PM10, taking days to weeks to be removed.

• PM can make lakes and other sensitive areas more acidic, causing changes to the nutrient balance and harming aquatic life.

PM2.5 –Particles smaller than 2.5µm in diameter

• Combustion of fossil fuels and wood (motor vehicles, woodstoves and fireplaces)

• Industrial activity

• Garbage incineration

• Agricultural burning

• Fine particles are small enough to make their way deep into the lungs. They are associated with all sorts of health problems — from a runny nose and coughing, to bronchitis, asthma, emphysema, pneumonia, heart disease, and even premature death.

• PM2.5 is the worst public health problem from air pollution in the province. (Research indicates the number of hospital visits increases on days with increased PM levels).

Ground level Ozone (O3)

Bluish gas with a pungent odour

• At ground level, ozone is formed by chemical reactions between volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and nitrogen dioxide (NO2) in the presence of sunlight.

• VOCs and NO2 are released by burning coal, gasoline, and other fuels; and naturally by plants and trees.


• Exposure for 6-7 hours, even at low concentrations, significantly reduces lung function and causes respiratory inflammation in healthy people during periods of moderate exercise. Can be accompanied by symptoms such as chest pain, coughing, nausea, and pulmonary congestion. Impacts on individuals with pre-existing heart or respiratory conditions can be very serious.

• Ozone exposure can contribute to asthma, and reduced resistance to colds and other infections.

• Ozone can damage plants and trees, leading to reduced yields.

• Leads to lung and respiratory damage in animals.

• Ozone can also be good: the ozone layer above the earth (the stratosphere) protects us from harmful ultraviolet rays.

Other Pollutants

• sulphur dioxide (SO2)
• carbon monoxide (CO)
• nitrogen dioxide (NO2)
• total reduced sulphur (TRS)
• volatile organic compounds (VOCs)
• persistent organic pollutants (POPs)
• lead (Pb)
• polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs)
• dioxins and furans

Most of these pollutants come from combustion and industrial processes or the evaporation of paints and common chemical products.

• The health impacts of these pollutants are varied.

• Sulphur dioxide (SO2), for example, can transform in the atmosphere to sulphuric acid, a major component of acid rain.

• Carbon monoxide is fatal at high concentrations, and causes illness at lower concentrations.

• Dioxins and furans are among the most toxic chemicals in the world.

• While some of these pollutants have local impact on the environment (e.g., lead) or are relatively short lived (NO2) some are long lived (POPs) and can travel the world on wind currents in the upper atmosphere.



Related Links: