Air Quality Specialist

Air quality specialists ensure emissions and other airborne pollutants do not violate provincial or federal air pollution laws. They see to it that pollutants, for example, those generated through chemical reactions and combustion, are not released into the air at harmful levels according to emission-impact assessments and without first being treated with proper contaminant-removal technologies. Air quality specialists also review environmental assessments for proposed factories and manufacturing plants and make recommendations for air pollution control equipment.

At a Glance

Imagine you are sitting at your computer poring over data from an air quality monitoring station that continuously measures levels of air pollutants at the edge of your city's industrial park. This data has been flagged by one of your team's technicians and passed on to you for review. Over the past few days, this station has been reporting abnormally high levels of pollutants that could become a threat to nearby residential neighborhoods.

As an air quality specialist, you review this data and other contributing factors to determine why the levels of air pollution have jumped and what needs to be done to safeguard the health of nearby residents and workers in the industrial park. You will spend the next few days investigating the recent increase in air pollution in that area of the city. First, you examine the data to determine exactly which pollutants are present at high quantities in the air. This information will help determine the source: it may be that one of the manufacturing plants in the industrial park has released an illegal amount of pollutants into the air. You will also look at local geographic data to help pinpoint the emission source.

Once a source has been found, you will review meteorological data from the area, particularly weather patterns over the last few days. Different pressure zones, wind speeds, and wind directions all contribute to changes in ambient air quality. You will also look at meteorological forecasts to determine if local weather might cause the situation to worsen or if winds might blow more pollution into residential zones. All these factors become pieces to a puzzle that you must put together in order to determine what is causing the reported rise in pollution and what needs to be done to keep people in the area safe.

Job Duties

Duties vary significantly from job to job, but the following list includes typical job duties one might encounter as an air quality specialist:

  • Conduct air quality field tests and air quality impact analyses.
  • Prepare air-emission inventories and organize and interpret data from monitoring sites.
  • Prepare dispersion models and develop air-sampling methods.
  • Review permit applications and evaluate regulatory compliance.
  • Assess the condition and efficiency of contaminant-removal equipment.
  • Prepare reports and recommend changes based on test results.
  • Evaluate ventilation and air supply systems to ensure indoor air is safe.

Work Environment

For most air quality specialists, an equal amount of time is spent indoors and outdoors. They are working in a variety of locations including, but not limited to:

In the office:

  • Doing paperwork and analyzing data for reporting
  • Drafting plans and models
  • Communicating on the phone and in meetings with clients, government departments, and the public
  • Presenting to clients assessment findings and recommendations for improvement
  • Researching new technology and advancements in air quality, and consulting with other air quality specialists and professionals

In the field:

  • Touring and inspecting sites
  • Testing designs and recommending changes
  • Taking measurements and recording data

Where to Work

  • Environmental engineering firms
  • Federal, provincial/territorial, and municipal government departments
  • Colleges, universities, and research institutes
  • Chemical and industrial companies

Education and Skills

The minimum education requirement to work as an air quality specialist is an undergraduate degree. If you are considering a career as an air quality specialist, the following programs are most applicable:

  • Chemical Engineering
  • Environmental Engineering
  • Chemistry
  • Meteorology

Certification is not mandatory for air quality specialists, but is recommended. Air quality specialists can be certified internationally. High school courses that will prepare you for a job as an air quality specialist include:

  • Mathematics
  • Physics
  • Chemistry
  • Computer science



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Role Models

Rachel Mintz

As an outdoor enthusiast, Rachel Mintz has always been very aware of the atmosphere. "I’m the type of person who checks the weather all the time, trying to decide at what point of the day do I want to go for a run, and which way is the wind blowing?” But it wasn’t until she took an elective while completing her Master’s in Chemical Engineering that she discovered an interest in air quality. "All of a sudden, the gears started turning in my head and I realized I had all the necessary tools to predict air quality.” More than two years later, Rachel is now working with Environment Canada as an air quality prediction scientist. The most interesting aspect of her job is the diversity it offers. "Every day is totally different and I really enjoy that.” Her job responsibilities include any combination of analyzing data, writing reports, computer programming, or giving public presentations. Rachel also enjoys the interdisciplinary aspect of the study of air quality. "You need some knowledge of chemistry, some knowledge of meteorology, and in behind these two facets are things like physics and math and thermodynamics.” The multidisciplinary aspect of her job can also be problematic. "A lot of people are not well versed in all these areas, so when discussing air quality, there are often difficulties in making sure others understand.” But the biggest challenge of Rachel’s job is conveying the necessary information to the public in an informative way. "Air is something we all breathe and live in, and it’s important that people have a general understanding of the issues involved in keeping it clean.” Conveying this information in the clearest possible way is a challenge Rachel works at everyday.

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