There's something funny happening with the air quality monitoring in Cheakamus Crossing.
James Hallisey, Resort Municipality of Whistler manager of environmental projects, has noticed a dramatic spike in the air quality measuring chart, indicating with a bold yellow line that the particulate from the asphalt plant has spiked from four micrograms per cubic metre (we'll explain later) to about 22 in a little over five hours.
"That's weird," he says.
He assumes it's an error. Levelton Consulting, a monitoring company based in Vancouver, were cleaning the device.
"Every month they come up and clean out the instrument to make sure it's all working properly, but I'd say after about 11 a.m., something" - his voice lowers into a gritty baritone - "strange is going on."
There's a long tube that runs 20 feet through the roof of the High Performance Centre, where the device sits, that sucks in the air it's sampling. Maintenance workers need to brush the tube out to make sure that nothing's been stuck in there. If they don't turn the instrument off - which has happened in the past - it will create an exaggerated reading because all the dust they're brushing off lands on the reader's sensor.
But up until this "anomaly" the ambient air quality has actually been fairly good since the RMOW began monitoring it around Cheakamus Crossing on Sept. 3, though Hallisey says the project has experienced some "growing pains." It typically takes a few months to work out the kinks in the system, but the machine should be running properly in the next couple of weeks.
"Ambient air" is what's floating around and above our heads outside. The municipality uses this term to differentiate the different monitoring that takes place inside the exhaust pipe of the asphalt plant and the monitoring of material that has been sent out into the air that is inhaled in through our mouths and down into our lungs - which has been of particular concern to some new residents of Cheakamus Crossing.
The devices collect and sample the amount of particulates less that 2.5 µg in size. These are extremely small particles that are typically produced by people, usually by burning materials. The higher the particulate matter in micrograms per cubic metre (µg/m³) the dirtier the air. According to the provincial standard on particulate matter - small particles floating around the air, typically caused by the burning of materials - anything below 15 µg/m³ is "good"; between 15 and 25 is "fair and anything over 25 is "poor." The instrument only samples a small amount of air each time, so the longer it's sampling period, the more accurate the device is.
The 24-hour average has been, at its highest, about 12 µg/m³ - in the "good" zone - with sporadic spikes nearing 20 µg/m³. This has coincided with increased productivity at the plant while Alpine Paving, the plant's operator, completes paving upgrades to Highway 99. The evidence so far has suggested that the air quality isn't as terrible as some people in the community may have been worried about - although there have been some hours in the past week where the chart has spiked to between 15 and 20.
"That's not so great," Hallisey says.
"They actually say that any amounts of particulate can be hazardous to your health. When they say it's 'good' obviously it's not that hazardous to your health but there's no basis as to where good and bad happens exactly."
He said it varies from person to person as well, so less is always better and more is always worse, but once the chart hits 15, people don't start gasping immediately.
"The problem with that stuff that small," he says, "is that our natural defenses, the natural filters in our mouths, noses and lungs don't really work. They go right past all that and go right into your lungs, so they're not really something you want too much of. They are dangerous to some extent."
The municipality has set up an interactive calendar (www.airquality.ca/whistler) showing the readings in real time, that gives hourly and 24-hour averages at Cheakamus Crossing. Air quality monitoring for Meadow Park Sports Centre can be found on the same website.