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Thursday, 26 January 2012

Communicating the Health Risk of Weather – A Canadian Public Health Celebration

If you are in Calgary and don’t like the weather, wait 15 minutes

Ottawa has the perfect four season weather – every day.

I’m sure you have your own collection of favourite Canadian weather sayings.   

It should be no surprise that Canadians would be innovators in many aspects of communicating weather – we have enough of it.   We can face hurricanes in Nova Scotia, stranded in a blizzard in Inuvik, frozen to the ground in Saskatoon, or drowning in torrential rains in Haida Gwaii  – the amazing thing is can all happen in a single day.

So here are some international innovations that you probably don’t realize have Canadian roots, and were designed as ways of communicating risk to protect the public’s health.   Likely topping the list in most Canadian minds is the UV index launched by Environment Canada in 1992.  The index was adopted internationally with minor refinements in 2000 as the standard tool for communicating Ultraviolet ray exposure risk. 

Not surprisingly, Canada has taken an active role in communicating the impacts of cold through the wind chill factor.   Some may recall the less than successful first attempt when Canada developed and reported wind chill as kcal/hr/m2.   Through the 70s and 80s this migrated to the more commonly used temperature equivalent and finally Canada played a coordinating and science contribution to the international standardization of the wind chill index and its temperature equivalent presentation in 2001.

More surprisingly, the humidex index was a fully Canadian innovation developed in 1965.  It does however differ from the later developed US heat index although there one might perceive similar reports given both present as equivalent temperatures. Canada is very actively involved currently in refining messaging and responses to heat Health Canada heat risks.  It is notable that different Canadian major cities use different approaches to determining when heat requires a public response.  Adaptation to heat also means that while temperatures of 40 C might only raise an eyebrow and barely start a sweat in the Okanagan, Nunavik may need to issue heat advisories at 17 C. 

The most recent contribution on the list of Canadian meterological innovations is the Air Quality Health Index (AQHI), a uniquely Canadian risk communication tool for what is likely the most important weather related public health threat.  Developed jointly by Health Canada and environment Canada, it is now available to just over 60% of Canadians. While the long term causes of air pollution are predominately anthropogenic (mad-made), the short term variation is largely driven by meteorological conditions.  Environment Canada AQHI The index is the first international index that uses public health impacts as the outcome for communicating  risk and the first to utilize the mixture of multiple pollutants using the more readily monitored measures of air quality. 

So who knew that behind the scenes of the Meterological Services of Canada, Weather Network and MétéoMédia were such marvellous Canadian innovations?  Innovations that not only make it easier for us to answer the question, “what is your weather like today? “, but also tools designed to communicate public health risk so we can make informed healthier choices as part of our daily routine.  

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