Clearing the Air

Smog sucks.

I am paraphrasing, of course, but that is the gist of an exhaustive report released last week by the Commission for Environmental Cooperation (CEC) on the effects of pollution on our children’s health.

Children’s Health and the Environment in North America” found that air pollution such as ground-level ozone, particulates and pesticides are leading to ballooning rates of childhood asthma throughout North America.

In some parts of the US, the incidence of childhood asthma had increased four fold in last 20 years. Here in Canada, one in five boys between the ages of 8 and 11 now suffers from asthma.

Our children are more at risk because they spend more time outdoors, are more active, and proportionately burn through far more air than adults. Their developing lungs and immune systems also put them at additional risk. Worldwide asthma rates are now climbing by an incredible 50% each decade –linked to declining air quality.

This is not just a human tragedy, it is an enormous economic burden as well.

Asthma costs the Canadian taxpayer a whopping $600 million each year in direct medical expenses. It is the leading cause of emergency room visits to our beleaguered health care system – an incredible 146,000 each year. Asthma is also the leading cause of absenteeism at school, and the third leading cause at work.

The asthma epidemic is not the only problem with our skanky air.

According to the CEC report, there is emerging evidence that poor air quality is also linked to host of other health issues, including miscarriages, premature births, low birth weights, and impaired lung development later in life.

The Ontario Medical Association (OMA) estimates that provincial air pollution causes 60,000 emergency room visits, 16,000 hospital admissions, and 5,800 premature deaths each year. Smog is estimated to cost the provincial economy a staggering $7.8 billion each year and rising.

What can we do? Plenty.

Transportation is the largest single source of air pollution in the country. Yet recommended efficiency standards for cars in Canada have not been changed for the last twenty years.

In a triumph of corporate lobbying, the largest SUV’s remain exempt from efficiency standards altogether even though these automotive monstrosities spew out 47% more pollution than cars.

Car ownership in Canada is also going in the wrong direction. The number of vehicles in Canada has more than doubled since 1970 - many of these additional vehicles being gas-guzzling SUVs.

As far as the major components of asthma-causing smog, Canada has a particularly dismal in limiting the chemicals that are poisoning our children.

Out of the 28 countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), Canada ranks third last for limiting emissions of nitrogen oxides, second last for sulfur dioxide emissions, and second last again for volatile organic compounds – a major contributor to ground-level ozone. Our sulfur dioxide emissions are more than double that OECD average per capita.

Energy generation is another problem. Last year the Ontario government announced that it was delaying the closure of the massive Nanticoke coal-fire generating plant on Lake Erie until at least 2009. This bitumen-burning behemoth spews out fully 14% of the airborne particulates in the entire province -a leading cause of asthma.

Canada also ranks towards the basement in terms of the efficient use of pesticide. Of the 28 countries in the OECD, only five use more pesticide per capita than Canada. Accurate Canadian trends are difficult to track we are one of the few countries in the OECD that does not track pesticide sales.

Stephen Harper, a self-described life-long sufferer of asthma, can appreciate the importance of moving quickly on improving Canadian air quality.

Perhaps the first order of business is to improve air quality monitoring. The CEC was unable to compare information on local air quality with relevant population data because we simply don’t keep such records.

We need mandatory emission standards on Canadian vehicles – something this country should have enacted years ago rather than continuing to coddle the auto industry with utterly ineffectual voluntary targets.

Government s need to invest in transport options other than continuing to pour tax dollars into infrastructure for the almighty auto. And of course, individuals really need to lay off the commuting alone in their cars every day.

We need to improve emissions from industrial polluters rather than continuing to tolerate having one of worst records for toxic emissions in the developed world.

Lastly, we need to focus on green energy and conservation so we can finally shut down the coal-fired dinosaurs that are turning our air blue.

Smog sucks. We can do something about it. Let’s get on with it.

Mitchell Anderson is a freelance writer based in Vancouver. This piece ran nowhere.

No comments: