Let’s talk about air quality.

Image by John Piercy | flickr.com

Image by John Piercy | flickr.com

Are you concerned about local air quality?

This is a question I asked Hamiltonians last summer as I pursued my research for a Master of Arts in Public Issues Anthropology. A born-and-raised Hamiltonian myself, I recruited interviewees throughout the city to discuss air quality and environmental engagement in Canada’s “Steel City”.

Air quality is an enduring concern in Hamilton as a result of industrial pollution from Hamilton’s steel industry, located on the northern edge of the city. Many of the Hamiltonians I interviewed referenced the Hamilton Spectator’s Code Red series, a 2010 investigative report that revealed major health disparities between upper and lower Hamilton, where Hamiltonians in many lower city neighbourhoods have higher rates of cardiovascular illness and lifespans 20 years shorter than neighbourhoods in the upper city. These shocking statistics have motivated many lower city residents to take action.

To gain a better understanding of the city’s pollution issues, I interviewed Environment Hamilton’s Lynda Lukasik and volunteers of the Initiative for Healthy Air and Local Economies (INHALE), a program that engages community volunteers in monitoring urban air quality at the ‘street level’ in Hamilton and Toronto (volunteer recruitment is ongoing so get involved if you live in the area!).

Volunteers of INHALE and other environmental initiatives in Hamilton are making an effort to report emissions infractions to the Ministry of the Environment (MOE) more frequently than in the past. This includes reporting unwelcome industrial odours in neighbourhoods that are in close proximity to the industrial core, as well as any discoloured smoke emitted from the industrial stacks seen from the lower city. The hope is that an increase in the number of reports to the MOE will encourage Hamilton’s industrial companies and the provincial government to strengthen environmental standards, increase transparency, and invest in clean air technology.

One important observation I noted from my research is that it is very difficult for an individual to bring about change on his or her own; rather, change happens when communities bind together and stand up for what they believe in. The environmental initiatives to improve air quality in Hamilton are a lesson in the value of community engagement.

During an interview I conducted an 18 year old boy from Hamilton offered me some words of wisdom: “I think the best tactic for any organization that wants to make an impact on the city or on this region is to engage the youth…because if the kids don't know, if they're not engaged with all the environmental issues, then we're just going to have a repetition of what we have now. The person who is going to change the world might not be here now, but we might spark the person—the mind—that will change the world.”

Canadians—east-coasters, west-coasters, and those of us in the middle—we are all responsible for protecting the country we love. What part will you play?