Poor air quality, high pollution levels persist in Toronto amid wildfire smoke

For the third day in a row, Toronto is under a special weather statement for high levels of pollution in the air — and climate and environment experts say while the city's multi-day air event is unprecedented, residents should anticipate that smoky conditions could become more frequent. 

City cancels, reschedules some programming

Haze covers the Toronto skyline
The Toronto skyline Wednesday afternoon in a thick blanket of Haze, caused by wildfire smoke. (Oliver Walters/CBC News)

For the third day in a row, Toronto is under a special weather statement for high levels of pollution in the air — and climate and environment experts say while the city's multi-day air event is unprecedented, residents should anticipate that smoky conditions could become a more frequent occurrence. 

Environment Canada had previously predicted Thursday's air would be the worst experienced in the city this week, brought on by wildfires in Quebec an other parts of Ontario. But as of 4 p.m., the weather agency had rated Toronto's air as a five out of the 10-point Air Quality Health Index (AQHI) scale. At 11:30 a.m., it was pegged at seven.

The number five signals a moderate risk and means there is no need to cancel outdoor activities unless people are coughing or their throats are irritated. Those considered at risk, however, should consider cutting back on or rescheduling strenuous outdoor activities if they are experiencing symptoms.

People at risk include seniors, infants, children, pregnant people, those who work outside or engaging in strenuous outoor activities and people with chronic health problems such as cancer or diabetes.

Though the prediction for Thursday has been downgraded, contaminant levels in the air are still high, according to Steven Flisfeder, a warning preparedness meteorologist with Environment Canada.

Flisfeder told CBC Toronto the polluted air is "still something to take into consideration, especially if you do have pre-existing health issues." It's rare for southern Ontario to experience multiple-day air quality concerns, he said.

"This year in particular, what we're experiencing is among the worst this region has seen. With climate change, we are expecting increased fire activity, due to increased droughts," he said.

"It's a big start to the fire season," he added, noting it's unclear how often this will occur in the future, but said it could be something residents should come to expect.

Edward Struzik, author of Firestorm: How Wildfire Will Shape Our Future, told CBC Toronto that a warming climate and dry forests are extending Canada's wildfire season.

"Most experts have been seeing a year like this coming for a long time," he said.

The smoke that Toronto is seeing is something "we're going to have to get used to in the future," he said.

Conditions won't clear until Sunday 

But currently, major cities are not prepared, said Struzik, citing buildings needing to be retrofitted with clean air filters as an example.

Federal government documents obtained by CBC News in 2019 estimated infrastructure failures linked to climate change could cost Canada over $300 billion in the next decade.

"We have to learn how to live with fire, and business as usual is not going to be successful in dealing with this," Struzik said. 

  • Cross Country Checkup wants to know how you're talking to kids about wildfire smoke and climate change. Parents and teachers, we want to hear from you. Fill out the details on this form and send us your stories.

Johanna Wagstaffe, CBC's senior meteorologist, said Thursday that people should expect air quality to remain poor until a new weather system arrives in the region Sunday into Monday, which should bring rain and winds that will push smoke north.

Environment Canada recommends wearing an N95 mask to help reduce exposure to fine particles in smoke, if being outside is unavoidable.

Anyone experiencing shortness of breath, wheezing, severe cough or dizziness should stop outdoor activities and contact their health provider, it said in its special weather statement this week.

Some programming rescheduled, cancelled across the city

Late Wednesday afternoon, Toronto Public Health said it was adjusting some programming across the city due to smoky air. It encouraged residents to reduce their exposure to the outdoors. 

Those registered in city programming, particularly outdoor activities, are encouraged to check its website for possible cancellations or rescheduling, it said in a statement. 

However, city sport fields, baseball diamonds and parks remain open. 

Toronto has also suspended outdoor activities at city-run early learning and childcare centres.

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The city said Toronto's Streets to Homes community outreach team is encouraging those who are homeless to conduct wellness checks and encourage people to come indoors. 

"In light of worsening air quality, the City is working to activate additional temporary contingency spaces at various shelter sites," it said.

Further cancellations include the Toronto History Museums which have cancelled all outdoor programming. 

On Wednesday night, the Toronto Zoo said it would limit its hours from 9:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Thursday due to poor air quality from the smoke and provide protective masks to staff and volunteers required to work outdoors. Outdoor time is also being limited for some animals.

Woodbine Entertainment cancelled Thursday's live racing for the safety of the horses and participants.

Three Toronto-area school boards move recess indoors

Due to the air quality warning for the Toronto area, three school boards in the region have opted to move recess inside for safety, while others say they are monitoring the situation.

The Toronto District School Board announced Wednesday evening that all outdoor activities, including recess, athletic events, field trips and local school events on Thursday will be moved indoors or rescheduled.

On Wednesday, the York Catholic District School Board held indoor recess all day. The York Region District School Board also told CBC News that indoor recess will be held until further notice.

An orange sun rises above the Toronto skyline through a smoky haze.
Smog lingers over Toronto at sunrise Wednesday due to smoke from forest fires. (Patrick Morrell/CBC)

Other school boards published statements Tuesday, noting they were monitoring the situation. The Peel District School Board said that "strenuous outdoor activities" scheduled for Wednesday and Thursday would be cancelled, including athletic events, but outdoor recess would continue.

The Toronto Catholic District School Board said Tuesday that individual schools can decide how to handle the air quality warnings, stating that it recommends indoor recess be considered.

The Dufferin Catholic District School Board said it will also keep an eye on the air quality on Wednesday and that it would be going ahead with field trips.