The Sport Information Resource Centre
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The Sport Information Resource Centre
A basketball net with only a chainlink fence separating the court from a polluting industrial building

In honour of Clean Air Day (June 8), SIRC partnered with Health Canada to present information about air pollution and how it can affect the health and performance of outdoor sport participants. We also highlight the ways coaches, officials and sport organizations can adapt to keep all participants safe during outdoor sporting activities.

In recent years, there’s been a renewed focus to create safer environments for participants in sports activities. While advances in sport safety have primarily revolved around addressing abuse and maltreatment and COVID-19 return-to-play protocols, what’s been overlooked is the aspect of sport safety associated with air quality in outdoor sports environments.

Fortunately, Canada’s air is consistently ranked among the cleanest in the world, according to the World Health Organization. But that’s no reason for us to let down our guard! Even at low levels, air pollution can negatively affect human health and performance.

Understanding air pollution and its effects on human health

In Canada, air pollution comes from: Vehicles (car with exhaust) Industrial facilities (factory with smokestacks) Forest fires (trees burning) Wood burning (indoor wood stove) Construction (machine used to dig foundations and other building projects) Agriculture (tractor) Oil and gas industry (fossil fuel tower) Electricity generation (power transmission tower)
Sources of air pollution in Canada. See the complete infographic created by Health Canada.

Air pollution is a mixture of chemical, physical and biological agents. There are different types of air pollutants, including fine particulate matter (PM2.5), carbon monoxide (CO), ground-level ozone (O3), sulphur dioxide (SO2), and nitrogen dioxide (NO2). These pollutants can come from many sources, including vehicle, agriculture and industrial emissions.

Short-term exposure to air pollutants has been linked to lower lung function and asthma flare-ups. Of greater concern, long-term exposure has been associated with an increased risk of lung cancer, stroke, heart disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and premature death.

While air pollutants from sources like traffic, factories and forest fires can negatively affect the health of everyone, those at increased risk are children, older adults, pregnant people and individuals with pre-existing medical conditions. Although you might not suspect it, people engaging in sports and exercise are at increased risk too.

How air pollution affects sport participants

Sport participants require more oxygen to perform at their best during training and competitive events. To meet this increased oxygen demand, sport participants breathe rapidly and deeply, taking large quantities of air into their lungs. If sport participants are in an area with air pollution, this also means that they’re inhaling higher amounts of air pollutants.

Sport participants are also at increased risk of exposure to air pollution because they breathe primarily through their mouths during strenuous activities. What this means is that the air they breathe bypasses the nose’s natural filtration mechanism, leading to more air pollutants being inhaled directly into their lungs. Some air pollutants, such as gases and fine particulates, can go from the lungs into the bloodstream affecting other organs as well as the lungs.

In the short term, increased exposure to air pollutants can affect sport performance by making breathing more difficult and increasing how hard it feels like you’re working during aerobic exercise (perceived exertion). In the long term, this increased exposure can lead to a wide range of adverse health effects that can get in the way of sport participation. Athletes with pre-existing medical conditions such as asthma are even more vulnerable to the effects of air pollution.

Strategies to reduce exposure to air pollution for outdoor sport 

A cyclist rides near industrial smokestacks

Sport organizations, coaches and officials are responsible for the safety of their participants. Lightning guidelines are widely used across Canada and the world to protect outdoor sports participants from hazards associated with lightning. Likewise, outdoor sport organizations, coaches and officials can protect themselves, athletes and spectators from exposure to air pollution during outdoor sports activities. Strategies include:

  • Monitor the news and trusted social media sources for local and regional public health air quality alerts
  • Cancel or reschedule outdoor sport activities on days when air quality is poor
  • Relocate outdoor sport activities to indoor venues when air quality is poor
  • Choose locations for outdoor sport activities away from sources of air pollution, such as factories or heavily used roadways 

Using the Air Quality Health Index (AQHI)

One tool that anyone involved in sport can use to monitor air quality is the Air Quality Health Index (AQHI). The AQHI, which can be found at Airhealth.ca, is a public health tool used to communicate the risks of exposure to air pollution in your area. The AQHI presents the relative health risk associated with the combined health effects of air pollutants, notably NO2, PM2.5 and O3. The risks are based on a scale of 1 to 10+. The 4 categories of relative risk go from low risk (1 to 3) all the way up to very high risk (10+).

Bilingual chart showing the Air Quality Health Index (AQHI) risk values grouped by:   low risk (1 to 3) in shades of blue  moderate risk (4 to 6) in shades of yellow to orange  high risk (7 to 10) in shades of pink to burgundy red  very high risk (10+) in brown
The AQHI scale and health risk categories. To see the forecasted and observed AQHI values in your area, visit AirHealth.ca.

The AQHI presents the current, observed air pollution risk and it also forecasts the AQHI values for later in the day and the next day. The risk presentation is accompanied by health messages that you can use to help decide if outdoor sport participation is safe in your area or if you should consider rescheduling or cancelling your activity. By providing the forecasted values for the upcoming days, the AQHI can help you plan future outdoor activities.

The optimum time to carry out outdoor sport activities is when the health risk is low (1 to 3). You may still hold your activity when the health risk is moderate (4 to 6), but you should monitor participants for symptoms and change the activity accordingly. Pay particular attention to individuals with pre-existing medical conditions such as asthma, When the health risk is high (7 or above), you should cancel and reschedule the activity for when the health risk is low. Or, if possible, move the activity to an indoor location like a school gym.

If you would like to receive air quality alerts directly to your phone, you can download the AQHI app on Google Play or the App Store

Advancing air quality education and policy in sport

Outdoor soccer on a field when there’s low air quality and smog is visible.

To protect outdoor sport participants, sport organizations must be aware of the effects that air pollution can have on everyone involved in sport, from athletes and coaches to spectators and officials. To this end, Health Canada has initiated, and is providing financial and technical support to, the Sport Information Resource Centre (SIRC) to develop an e-learning module and a policy guide focused on air pollution and sport.

The e-learning module will review the effects of air pollution on outdoor sport participants. It will also identify ways to take action to protect all participants from exposure to air pollution during outdoor sports activities. When it’s ready, the module will be housed on the Coaching Association of Canada’s e-learning platform, The Locker.

Health Canada is also working with SIRC to develop a guide to help sport organizations develop air quality policies that will help protect their participants now and in the years to come. The policy guide will be available to download from SIRC’s website.

The free training module and policy guide will be available in fall 2022. Please contact info@sirc.ca for more information.

Recommended resources

You may find the following resources helpful as you work to learn more about air pollution and what your organization can do to help keep your participants safe:


About the Author(s)

Brynna Kerr, M.Sc., is a research assistant at SIRC. In this role, she supports SIRC’s research, knowledge mobilization and evaluation initiatives. Brynna is also a Ph.D, student at the University of Toronto, where she’s exploring how educational initiatives may improve youth’s concussion knowledge and behaviours. Her goal with her research is to help make sure that athletes can continue to safely enjoy the many benefits that sport has to offer.

Veronica Allan, Ph.D., is the Manager, Research and Innovation at SIRC. In this role, she leads SIRC’s research and evaluation initiatives. She also solicits, supports and curates content from researchers, experts and thought leaders to mobilize knowledge for Canada’s sport and physical activity sector. Her experiences as a researcher, journalist and athlete have equipped her with a unique skillset and passion for data, storytelling and sports.

Opel Vuzi is the Air Quality and Health Specialist with Health Canada in Edmonton, Alberta. He works with the Government of Alberta to implement the Air Quality Health Index in that province. He has initiated and managed a number of projects to increase awareness about the harmful effects of air pollution and develop health promotion tools such as guidelines and training materials on air pollution and health. His professional experience in environmental and public health makes him an important contributor to health promotion and stakeholder engagement.  

References

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The information presented in SIRC blogs and SIRCuit articles is accurate and reliable as of the date of publication. Developments that occur after the date of publication may impact the current accuracy of the information presented in a previously published blog or article.