Cole: Looking for a new home in Ottawa? Check the air quality

Will your house be in an area where air quality is now acceptable and will be in the future? It's worth your well-being and perhaps your life, to get that answer.

Jake Cole 4 minute read April 25, 2022

Home seekers should try to add good air quality to their list of 'must haves' when looking to buy. Ashley Fraser / Postmedia

The following is written in response to the March 22 article, 5 tips to help you buy your first home in the nation’s capital: 

When moving to a new home in Ottawa, this should probably be the number one concern: How is the air?

Hundreds of people are dying prematurely each year in Ottawa from air pollution, according to a Health Canada report. Many others will suffer from asthma, heart attacks, cancer and other chronic diseases, all related to air pollution.

What does that have to do with a new home? In Ottawa, there are areas where the air is not healthy. We identified some of those in a project, BreatheEasy, that I led as a volunteer with the Sierra Club Canada Foundation.

Here are some of the key findings:

1. There is only one official air quality (AQ) station in Ottawa. It’s located downtown in a park on Wurtemburg Street. It typically reads AQ as “low risk” much of the time. However, just a few feet away, along Rideau Street, we found AQ readings several times higher and at unsafe levels.

2. There are many other “hot spots” across the city. One was the recent truckers’ protest site. With the help of two CBC staff, we took measurements there and discovered dangerous, but fortunately temporary, AQ levels.

3. Most people in Ottawa have no idea of the AQ where they live, work or play.

4. Wood-burning fireplaces can produce a lot of air pollution in a localized area. Some Canadian cities have banned them. Not Ottawa.

5. It’s almost impossible to get our authorities to investigate a possible air pollution situation. The city does not do it. The province seems to have the mandate but not the resources. If we suspect bad AQ, we are basically on our own to do anything about it.

6. Small, gas-fuelled yard equipment, such as leaf blowers and lawn mowers, produces a lot of localized but significant air pollution. The city appears to be looking at reducing their use with its own projects. That is one step in the right direction.

In doing our project, we have learned a lot about AQ in Ottawa and what other cities and countries are doing to improve their AQ. So here is my list of recommendations for prospective home hunters.

• Do not choose a home near heavy traffic areas, large parking lots, commercial areas, industrial sites, or where large, long-lasting construction projects are, or will be, taking place.

• Avoid being close to school bus drop-off locations.

• Avoid areas closed in by high buildings (even tall trees) where air pollution can be trapped.

• Don’t rely on staying indoors to reduce your exposure to air pollution. Unless you use a good indoor air purifier continuously, your indoor AQ will be typically at least as bad as the outdoor AQ.

•  Do choose a home near bike and pedestrian trails.

What about Ottawa city hall’s recent policy to intensify housing across the city? I am not sure about this. While there are some legitimate environmental benefits touted for such areas, I believe these intensified sites could end up with more people, more traffic and more air pollution. The localized air quality is certainly going to suffer during the site preparation, construction and possibly afterwards too. There will be an almost inevitable increase in air pollution. The city should start to measure and report on AQ before it can promote intensification projects as a good place to live.

Home seekers should try to add good air quality to their list of “must haves” when looking. Check the AQ in the area under consideration. One can buy a basic AQ monitor for under $500. The BreatheEasy project has received funding to carry on for another year. It might be able to offer some help too.

Final comment: Will your new home be in an area where AQ is now acceptable and will be in the future? It’s worth your well-being and perhaps your life, to get that answer — before you move, not after.

Jake Cole is former environment director, Canadian Coast Guard former national manager, Canada’s R-2000 Home Program; and a volunteer with the Sierra Club Canada Foundation. The opinions expressed in this article are his own and do not necessarily represent those of the Sierra Club Canada Foundation.

For more information about BreatheEasy:



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