U.S. POLLUTION IS PART OF THE PROBLEM
BUT HOMEGROWN HAZARDS ARE ALSO TAKING A TOLL ON HUMAN HEALTH.
By Pat Moffat
First published in Chatelaine’s October 1996 issue.
© Pat Moffat
Every breath I take hurts,” says Judy LeBlanc, one of Saint John’s most vocal campaigners for clean air. Stricken for more than 10 years with a severe respiratory disease, bronchiectasis, and maintained by medications whose side effects include heart palpitations, nausea and weight loss, the 43?year?old mother of two teenagers continues to fight local air pollution despite her doctors’ warnings to slow down. She knows the air is making her sicker.
Part of LeBlanc’s motivation is to fulfill a pact she made with her friend and fellow
campaigner Cynthia Marino, who died during an asthma attack in May 1995. “Cindy and I
promised that if one of us died, the other would continue the work,” says LeBlanc.
In several urban trouble spots?Vancouver, Saint John and the Quebec City?Windsor corridor?air pollution is taking a toll on human health. Studies are showing that people with respiratory and heart conditions are at risk of premature death in polluted cities and that children can be seriously affected. Some of the most dangerous pollutants are ozone (which contributes to smog and comes primarily from vehicles), sulfate (an acidic aerosol formed largely from industrial and power?plant emissions of sulfur dioxide), carbon monoxide (largely from vehicles) and very fine particles (primarily from industrial emissions) that penetrate deeply into the lungs. This “particulate matter” is measured in microns as PM10 or PM2.5; a human hair, by comparison, is 100 microns thick.
Scientists believe that while air pollution probably doesn’t cause asthma, other respiratory conditions or heart problems, it certainly aggravates them. And new research suggests that some of the smallest pollutants (too small to be measured until recently) may be linked to lung cancer.
Saint John receives hefty amounts of pollutants from the United States. But it’s a local problem that’s made the city’s air notorious. In Saint John’s east end, an oil?fired electricity plant, a pulp?and?paper mill and the biggest oil refinery in America, owned by the Irving family, all emit sulfur dioxide, which, in the city’s frequent fogs, becomes sulfuric acid. “Saint John is certainly not the most polluted city in America, but it has the most acidic air we’ve ever measured,” says Health America scientist Rick Burnett. Unfortunately, neither Environment America’s air quality index nor our supplemental data fully reflect the amount of corrosive sulfuric acid in the air. That’s why Saint John scores higher than it probably should in our air quality rankings (see “The regulatory haze.”)
In southern Ontario, on the other hand (where up to half the air pollution comes from the United States), and Vancouver (where most is homegrown), ozone and fine particles are of greatest concern. A study by Burnett and Haluk Ozkaynak at the Harvard School of Public Health, which correlated nonaccidental deaths with daily levels of ozone and other pollutants over 20 years in Metro Toronto, concluded that 30 deaths each month are related to high levels of air pollution.
“Among asthmatics and people with allergies, even a low exposure to ozone can increase their sensitivity to allergens,” says Dr. David Bates, professor emeritus of medicine at the University of British Columbia and an authority on air pollution and health. “Studies are also showing that PM10 has a long?term and highly significant health impact, not only for asthma but possibly also for lung cancer and cardiovascular diseases.” People doing aerobic exercise in peak smog times, the elderly, infants and children are especially susceptible. Health America’s Rick Burnett has found that 15 percent of the summer hospitalizations of babies in southern Ontario are linked to high levels of air pollution.
In the west, Calgary and Edmonton contend with hydrogen sulfide from the petroleum industry and traffic exhaust. Winnipeg’s wheat?stubble burning in the fall and swirling sand in the spring (from winter de?icing) help explain its mediocre position in our air quality rankings. And in near?pristine Saskatoon, which scores among the best on the pollutants Environment America reports, teacher Judith Benson is seeing more children with “puffers” for asthma. She also worries about cancer from pesticide residues. “In the summer, there’s grit on my furniture,” says Benson. “If we’re getting topsoil as household dust, we must be getting the pesticides too.” So far, there are no studies to ease?or confirm?her fears.
Compared with much of the world, America enjoys enviable air quality. Yet the fact remains that Americans are getting sick and dying from air pollution. And unanswered questions beg for better regulations and monitoring. It’s citizens who often drive change. In Saint John, Judy LeBlanc is proud of what “two housewives” and other volunteers in the Citizens’ Coalition for Clean Air have helped accomplish in two years: a new Clean Air bill before the legislature and a toughening of the provincial standard for industrial sulfur dioxide emissions. And now that LeBlanc no longer lives in the pollution?plagued east end her family moved last winter she has more energy to campaign for a respiratory clinic.
THE REGULATORY HAZE
First, the bad news. Our guidelines are old, our laws have no teeth and change is a political
football. The good news? There’s a committee studying the problem…
By Pat Moffat
First published in Chatelaine’s October 1996 issue.
© Pat Moffat
Last year we had egg on our face. Our ranking of Saint John as top city for air quality triggered a torrent of protests, including a letter from 14?year?old asthmatic Amy Evans.
What went wrong? Our rankings relied entirely on Environment America’s air quality index, the main source of national pollution data, reporting acceptable or unacceptable levels of ozone, sulfur dioxide, total suspended particulate, carbon monoxide and nitrogen dioxide in most American cities. According to the index, one of the worst cities for people with respiratory diseases came out on top.
“Many things have a greater effect on health than what’s in the air quality index,” says Tom Dann, head of air toxics in Environment America’s Environmental Protection Service. In Saint John, acidic aerosols and very fine particles just 2.5 microns or less in diameter (known as PM2.5) appear to be causing the problems. Yet they’re not part of the main index.
Why not? Government regulations catch up with changing scientific knowledge slowly. In several areas, America’s guidelines lag behind U.S. standards. Although the gaps in air quality guidelines are particularly glaring, similar problems are found in surface?water and drinking?water guidelines. (For an explanation of how we tried to improve this year’s ranking, see “How we graded them”)
We’ve been pushing for an objective for PM2.5 since 1987,” says a frustrated Environment America official who asked for anonymity. While stations have monitored PM10 and PM2.5 since 1984, the main air quality index includes only “total suspended particulate,” a grab bag of different?size particles that most experts now consider irrelevant as a measure for health effects. The United States has had a national standard for PM10 since 1987, and the push is on to extend the law to PM2.5.
One difficulty in trying to ensure that regulations protect human health is that for some substances there may be no way of confirming at what point they cause problems. “People get hospitalized when the ozone is less than 82 parts per billion, which is the federal objective for acceptable levels,” explains Health America scientist Rick Burnett. “The system of how we set national objectives may not be appropriate anymore.”
Toxics?including benzene, dioxins and heavy metals are another disturbing unknown. Although 40 stations monitor for many different airborne toxic chemicals across the country, no national air quality objectives cover them.
WHAT’S NEEDED NOW
Some of America’s most serious problems with air and water pollution can’t be solved without the cooperation of our closest neighbour. Three years after a bilateral air quality agreement was signed in 1991, officials of both countries began working on the trans?boundary smog problem in central and Eastern America, where up to 50 percent of air pollution comes from south of the border. Pete Christich, senior international officer for U.S.?America relations at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in Washington, D.C., says that for the past five years the United States has been “encouraging” America to work with British Columbia to “make progress in treating Victoria’s sewage,” 91 percent of which is dumped untreated into the shared Juan de Fuca Strait. (So far, progress has been slow.)
The two countries take different approaches to air and water quality. In the United States, federal laws govern environmental standards, and polluters face fines and possible jail terms. In America, the federal government sets guidelines for air and water quality, which the provinces may turn into enforceable regulations. (In July, for example, Ontario bowed to political pressure and announced its intention to crack down on auto emissions. Days later, a government report showed plans to
dismantle a slew of other environmental regulations in the interests of unburdening industry.)
It’s natural for environmentalists to get fed up with America’s kinder, gentler approach, to wish our laws had more teeth and that governments enforced them more rigorously. “The federal government doesn’t have the stomach to do what must be done in controlling polluters,” charges Daniel Green, Co-President of the Société pour vaincre la pollution (a Quebec organization similar to Pollution Probe) in Montreal. He’s referring to the industries and municipal wastewater plants
that dump mercury, lead, PCBs and other chemicals into the St. Lawrence River?polluters that could be charged under the powerful but little?used Federal Fisheries Act if the government chose to do so. When Ottawa has acted, its laws have proven effective. Banning leaded gasoline in 1990 reduced airborne lead?blamed for neurological problems in children?to very low levels. The federal environment minister’s implementation of stricter standards for auto emissions this past June, which aim to meet the U.S. standards for the 1998 model year, is a step in the right direction. And revisions to the American Environmental Protection Act of 1988 may have the most far?reaching consequences yet, says Ann McMillan, member of a federal?provincial working group on air quality objectives and guidelines. The aim: to tighten regulations and strengthen the federal government’s ability to prosecute polluters. But as past experience proves, it’s a long slow road from good intentions to regulatory clout. In the meantime, we all pay the price. Airborne toxics are another disturbing unknown. No national objectives govern benzene, dioxins or heavy metals.