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Winter’s Dirty Secret

photography by jeff kirk

The coolest science in Canada? It’s happening at York University in an outdoor lab located on a rooftop high above campus where, on a good day, temperatures plunge well below zero.

“We’re studying poor air quality in winter time, and this is a nice space for doing that,” says lead researcher Cora Young as she steps over mounds of windswept snow on the way to her purpose-built work station in the sky.

“It’s safe, number one. You don’t have to worry about falling off the roof. It also has access to power. But the best part is that it gets pollution from two highways, the 407 and the 400, both of which are really close by. Which means we can get some pretty good measurements from up here.”

The traffic crawling at a snail’s pace on the ribboning roads below emits noxious fumes that take on the appearance of a very fine mist in the cold air, making them seem indistinguishable from the elements. To gauge their corrosive effect on the environment, Young commands a sequence of James Bond-like lasers called spectrometers that cut through the frigidity to serve as real-time gas analyzers. One quantifies the concentration of gases in the atmosphere while the other identifies the different gases by their masses.

“What we discover up here we can apply to all urban areas that have pollution,” says Young, a 36-year-old environmental chemist who joined York’s Faculty of Science last spring as the newly appointed Guy Warwick Rogers Chair in Chemistry. It’s important work.

Air pollution results in 7,700 premature deaths in Canada each year, according to a report released last summer by the International Institute for Sustainable Development, a charitable organization receiving core operating support from the Government of Canada. Worldwide, pollution kills more people than infectious diseases and war, concludes a study published by The Lancet medical journal last October.

“Given what we continue to learn about the detrimental effects of air pollution on our health and economy, it is vital to gain a better understanding of the drivers and risks of poor air quality, especially in winter months when pollutants are more likely to be trapped closer to the ground,” says Muhannad Malas, toxics program manager with the Canadian environmental advocacy group Environmental Defence.

“With extreme winter temperatures becoming more common and increasing pollution from vehicles and heating in rapidly growing cities like Toronto, studying air quality during the winter becomes even more important for the health of Canadians.”

Young is hopeful her study will make a difference in combatting air pollution.

“Most studies until now have studied air quality only in summer time, which is why we normally get smog alerts in the warmer months. But we can also have poor air quality in winter time, and if we can understand the underlying chemistry of poor air quality in winter we can develop strategies to improve it.” And that’s not just cool. It’s critical.

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