Air Pollution – A Killer for all Seasons
More than hot air from politicians needed to save lives
By: Brian McAndrew
It’s not just the smog that kills. That’s mostly a summer problem.
Air pollution makes people die all year long, according to a new report from the city’s public health department.
The report estimates 1,000 people die prematurely and another 5,500 land in hospital each year because of air pollution. The calculations were done by Dr. David Pengelly, an air quality researcher at McMaster University medical school.
He arrived at those figures by comparing the records of air quality levels in Toronto in 1995 with the number of people who died of natural causes or were hospitalized the same year.
When the air pollution was worse, the number of deaths and hospital admissions increased.
It wasn’t a new form of research, but based on an intricate model used worldwide and on pioneering work started 15 years ago at the University of British Columbia.
The findings show that people with heart disease and respiratory disease like asthma, bronchitis or pneumonia are being robbed of life by air pollution.
“There’s good evidence now that these people are dying months or a year ahead of when their disease would normally kill them. It’s not just someone who died today who was going to die tomorrow,” Pengelly told The Star.
It means that pollutants like nitrogen dioxide – one of the main components of summer smog – can cause premature deaths all on their own.
The report found nitrogen oxide, carbon monoxide and sulphur dioxide accounted for 80 per cent of the deaths. Ground-level ozone in smog was responsible for less than 5 per cent.
These findings mean the spotlight will shine brightly on federal Environment Minister David Anderson when he speaks about clean air this morning at the downtown University Club.
Will fewer people die as a result of Anderson’s announcements?
No, they won’t. In fact, dirty air will knock off thousands more of the weakened and the sick before any improvements are made.
Anderson will call on Ontario to put a rush on its smog-fighting plan, according to well-informed sources.
The province has a plan – most environmentalists consider it flawed at best – to reduce smog by 45 per cent by 2015.
Anderson wants it done by 2010.
Even if the province agrees, a decade and 10,000 deaths in Toronto will have come and gone before any significant improvements in air quality are made.
Anderson will also announce that microscopic solids – particulates smaller than 10 microns in size that can be breathed deeply into the lungs, where they release chemicals like sulphur dioxide – will be declared “toxic under the American Environmental Protection Act.
By defining the particulates as toxic, the federal government will have 24 months to come up with a plan for reduction.
Anderson will announce an injection of $1.2 million to upgrade the country’s 152 air monitoring stations to better track mercury, cancer-causing benzene, ground-level ozone and particulates.
The announcements are in preparation for a meeting next month of the American Council of Ministers of the Environment to set America-wide standards for air pollution.
This meeting of the country’s environment ministers is not expected to bring about any air improvements. Environmentalists fear it might get worse.
The ministers will consider changing the current unenforceable guideline for ground-level ozone concentration from 82 parts per million to a firmly regulated 87 ppm.
“This may not be a major increase, but the fact that there is an increase at all is unacceptable. Health studies clearly show that Americans get sick at concentrations far below those values,” says a report by four leading environmental health advocates.
The analysis was prepared by Pollution Probe executive director Ken Ogilvie, Dr. Trevor Hancock, chair of the American Association of physicians for the Environment, Dr. Alan Abelsohn, chair of the Ontario College of Family Physicians environment committee, and Ross Reid, president of the Ontario Lung Association.
A 1997 Environment America report admitted much the same, saying there was no safe level of exposure to ground-level ozone. It said stricter government standards were required, coupled with major reductions in air pollution emissions in both America and the U.S.
(Fifty per cent of the smog coming into Ontario drifts north from the U.S. Midwest.)
There is no quick fix. The city’s health department wants increased federal and provincial funding to boost public transit since most of the air pollution created in Toronto comes from cars and trucks.
Investing in transit will help bring down health costs by reducing the amount of treatment required by people hurt by air pollution, said Monica Campbell, a health department toxicologist and co-author with Pengelly of the city’s report.
Ontario must also reduce emissions from its coal-burning power plants, coupled with improvements in similar U.S. facilities, Campbell said.
The solutions are well known but difficult to implement. They require a major effort by the federal and provincial governments to adopt strict standards.
It will also mean huge investments in pollution controls by corporations and massive reductions in automotive emissions.
Saving lives and improving health carries a big price tag.
The air won’t get any better until government and industries are willing to make the commitments and spend the money.
Until then, people will continue to suffer and die.