Torontonians can breathe a little easier today on the subject of air pollution. Canada’s largest city, once nicknamed The Big Smoke, has shown a striking improvement in air quality — saving lives and reducing hospitalizations.
But Canada’s largest city can do even better. Cars and trucks remain the primary local source of contaminants assailing residents’ lungs, underlining the importance of expanding healthier alternatives for moving about, including public transit.
That’s the upshot of a new study, called Path to Healthier Air, from Toronto Public Health.
The report found premature deaths as a result of air pollution have dropped by 23 per cent over the past decade, with a 41 per cent plunge in annual hospitalizations. Unfortunately this still leaves about 1,300 people dying too soon each year in Toronto due to unhealthy air, along with 3,550 hospitalizations. In addition to that, thousands of work and school days are still lost annually by people struggling to cope with conditions such as chronic bronchitis and asthma.
Gains made since 2004 result from the closing of Ontario’s coal-fired power plants, especially Lakeview in neighbouring Mississauga, the study’s authors say. They also credit more stringent vehicle emission standards; low-sulfur fuels, and the province’s Drive Clean program. Moreover benefits delivered by these initiatives could be improved still further with a bit of determination and political will.
About half the air pollution causing respiratory distress in Toronto drifts here from outside the city, including from the United States. There’s not much to be done about that. But traffic accounts for the bulk of locally generated contaminants and steps can be taken to reduce its impact.
Pollution from vehicles travelling Toronto’s routinely-jammed streets and expressways contributes to about 280 premature deaths and 1,090 hospitalizations each year — a significant portion of the total. Furthermore, that burden isn’t shared equally, with residents living near major thoroughfares exposed to considerably more toxins and health risks.
Heavy trucks are the worst culprits. Researchers noted that big transports represented just 1.5 per cent of the vehicles on Canada’s streets in 2009 but accounted for more than half the amount of some key pollutants. It’s not just due to a big rig’s massive engine. These vehicles tend to have a long working life, so older models are often on the road well after more stringent emission standards have been imposed on newer trucks.
As reported by the Star’s Debra Black, health officials want provincial money urgently allocated to public transit so that more Toronto drivers will be tempted to leave their cars at home. “The debate on transportation is also about our health,” Medical Officer of Health Dr. David McKeown rightly points out.
The city’s Board of Health is to consider other useful recommendations next Monday including development of an “urban freight strategy.” This would involve working with industry and environmental experts to find ways of lessening the harm done by trucks. For example, by promoting off-peak deliveries so that big rigs spend less time idling in gridlocked traffic.
Authors of the report also note that low-cost, highly effective mobile air monitoring equipment is being developed. Once this technology is fully available it could be usefully deployed at the neighbourhood level investigating local concerns and tracking air quality changes. To that end, public health staff is recommending that municipalities and the province explore joint purchase and use of advanced mobile monitoring equipment.
All these proposals, big and small, make sense. Solid progress has been made to clear the air in Toronto. But that’s no reason to be complacent — not with 1,300 people in this city still dying too soon from inhaling pollutants. Let’s give that smoke a little more scrubbing.
via Toronto can do more to reduce premature deaths from air pollution: Editorial | Toronto Star.