The distance between New Delhi and Williams Lake is vast, but for the Ministry of Environment’s new air quality meteorologist for the Cariboo Region, the extremes are probably felt a little more intensely.
Comparing his old home to his new home, Arvind Saraswat immediately talks about pollution.
“New Delhi has one of the highest levels of air pollution in the world and I think we are probably one of the places in the world with the lowest here,” he says of Williams Lake.
Saraswat was born in a “very small” city in India, although what qualifies as a small city in India is a population of 100,000 people, he admits.
When he graduated from high school, he moved to New Delhi to pursue an undergraduate degree in civil engineering at the Indian Institute of Technology.
After graduating from IIT he worked for two and half years at a World Health Organization collaborating centre called Transportation Research and Injury Prevention Program, where he was a project associate.
“I was doing traffic safety research there, but while doing traffic research I got interested in traffic emissions and that made me make the switch from transportation to environmental sciences.”
He has been working in Williams Lake since the beginning of January, while continuing to finish his PhD in resource management and environmental studies at the University of British Columbia, where he was enrolled as a full-time student since 2006.
A main focus of his job in the Cariboo is the air quality of communities in the region, specifically that of Quesnel, Williams Lake and 100 Mile House.
“It involves air-shed planning and understanding how different sources are impacting air shed quality in those communities.”
He points out that interior communities are unique when it comes to air quality because air becomes trapped in the bowl-shaped valleys that dot the topography, with what’s called inversions.
“The air quality in Quesnel would be quite distinct if there’s an inversion there compared to the air quality of Williams Lake if there is no inversion. These are meteorological conditions which lead to trapping of pollutants within an air shed or a region.”
Emissions inventories, completed for Quesnel and Williams Lake about five years ago, revealed that industrial sources, wood burning sources, road dust and traffic were all major contributors to air pollution. Railway engines were also identified as having some impacts, he explained.
“There’s no single source that’s responsible for all air pollution. It’s a combination of sources that leads to air pollution. And as I mentioned, we have a slightly unique situation in terms of meteorology and topography. The inversions lead to higher levels of pollution.”
The differences between the Fraser Valley and Cariboo regions are that the Fraser Valley has ozone concerns, whereas the Cariboo doesn’t. The main concerns here are dust (PM-10) and fine particulate matter(PM-2.5).
Air quality is continually monitored by MOE at two different stations in Williams Lake — one is at Columneetza Secondary School, the other is at the Cariboo Regional District Library.
“The stations provide minute by minute data 24/7. They are highly sophisticated instruments and quite expensive as well. We have access to data all the time so it’s real time data.”
At the Columneetza station, all parameters are being measured. At the CRD only PM-10 and PM-2.5 are being monitored.
An additional non-continuous station at the Williams Lake Golf and Tennis Club provides data through a filter-based method. As a result it takes time to retrieve the data and there’s a time lag between monitoring and the time when MOE gets the results.
Public access to this information can be obtained at http://envistaweb.env.gov.bc.ca/.
Referring to an air quality roundtable and an air shed management plan already in place in Williams Lake, Saraswat says work started around 1999 to put plans together that would serve as models for different communities.
“We are now at a stage for a review to take place to understand how much progress has been made since the plans were put in place.”
Saraswat notes there are different ways to understand air quality — through annual averages and 24-hour averages. Generally annual averages would indicate statistics that are useful for understanding the long-term picture.
While annual averages are below objectives, the concern is managing time periods when inversions cause poor dispersion conditions that lead to high levels of PM-2.5 and dust.
“In general I would say air quality is good. We just have to be vigilant that we manage our emissions well. We try to follow some simple things like not idling, trying to use clean sources of heat like electricity if possible,” he says, adding if that’s not possible and wood is the only heat source, then to use well-cured wood and high efficiency certified wood stoves.
He also nudges citizens to consider cutting down on their driving and walk more if possible.
“We need to be cognizant of the fact that human activities lead to higher pollution. I would encourage everyone to visit the BC Air Quality website. It has a number of ways listed there which people can make a difference by doing small things.” (http://www.bcairquality.ca/101/individual-air-quality.html)
Pleasantly surprised with Williams Lake, Saraswat says he’s making friends, has tried ice fishing and hopes to go hunting in the future.
“I can buy Indian spices and foods in the stores,” he adds with a smile.