We must act on smog now

Jun. 25, 2003. The Toronto Star - EVA LIGETI

With more highways, more cars and more urban sprawl on the horizon, our right to breathe clean air is being fundamentally eroded

Breathing unsafe polluted air is becoming routine here in the Greater Toronto Area. But the consequences are far from routine — they're fatal.

In fact, the Ontario Medical Association estimates that 2,030 people will die from air pollution in Ontario this year alone. And many more thousands will crowd our emergency rooms. That's why Toronto hosts annual Smog Summits to engage all governments in the GTA in commitments for collective and individual action to reduce smog.

The GTA is on the A-list for many enviable categories in this country. But being at the top of the list as the smoggiest region in Canada is nothing to be proud of.

We may welcome the warmth of the last few days here in the GTA, but as soon as it gets hot, we get smog. To mark the first hot day of the summer last Sunday, residents in the GTA and across Ontario were treated to their first smog advisory of the season.

The province issues smog advisories for areas where the Air Quality Index reading is expected to exceed the "poor" threshold of 50.

On Monday, the AQI in Mississauga was 55. That same afternoon, the AQI was 49 in Burlington, 49 in Oakville, and 46 in Newmarket. High smog levels were similarly recorded across the province, with readings of 69 in the rural town of Merlin, 56 in St. Catharines, 54 in London, and 45 in Belleville.

Don't think that you can escape smog by fleeing to cottage country. On Monday afternoon, Parry Sound in the Muskokas recorded an AQI of 48 and Barrie weighed in at 46.

In Taking Stock 2000, the Commission on Environmental Co-operation reported that in continental North America, Ontario is the third most polluting jurisdiction, behind only Texas and Ohio.

The report also found that from 1998 to 2000, while air pollution from American industries decreased by 8 per cent, in Canada harmful emissions increased by 7 per cent.

With more highways, more cars and more urban sprawl on the horizon, our collective right to breathe clean air is being fundamentally eroded. The time to act is now.

A number of new studies document the insidious health effects of air pollution.

Research from Taiwan and Germany has shown that chemicals in vehicle exhaust lead to an increased risk of respiratory disorders in children living in heavy traffic areas. Youngsters living within 50 metres of roads where more than 33,000 vehicles passed by each day were almost twice as likely to suffer from asthma as other children.

Studies have connected air pollution, even at low levels, with increased heart disease.

An international research team has discovered that even small increases in urban air pollution can trigger an increased number of potentially fatal heart attacks in people with vulnerable arteries.

In a new twist, Italian scientists have found that traffic pollution may affect male fertility by damaging sperm quality in young and middle-aged men.

Scientists have long warned about the health effects of ground-level ozone. But research on fine particulate matter — PM 2.5 — is more recent. These particles get inhaled deep into the lungs and are linked to significant negative health effects. Airborne microscopic particles are generated from traffic, industrial pollution, outdoor fires and the burning of coal and fossil fuels.

At a previous Smog Summit, Ontario's environment minister announced that the province was improving its Air Quality Index — by including PM 2.5. Because of this change and because of the continued warming trend, we can expect more days when our air quality reaches the "poor" designation, with values of 50 or greater.

Toronto has recently analyzed existing hourly air pollution data for the city.

A new study by Toronto Public Health, Air Pollution And Physical Activity, notes the health benefits of physical activity, but warns against strenuous outdoor activity on smog alert days.

One of the joint actions being declared at this year's Smog Summit is the expansion of the work of this study: Teaching people who work with children at schools, summer camps, day cares and recreational facilities how to develop sound policies regarding physical activity on days with poor outdoor air quality.

According to the environment ministry, beginning next year, heavy-duty diesel trucks and buses on Ontario highways must meet the strictest exhaust emissions standards in North America. Queen's Park is proposing that the standards for all heavy-duty vehicles be tightened. And beginning in 2004, school buses will also have to meet the stricter standards, regardless of age.

If Canadian provinces fail to act, Ottawa is considering new authority that would give the federal government the ability to curb urban smog.

This new federal power would force Ontario to comply with a Canada-U.S. agreement known as the Ozone Annex, which limits emissions of ground-level ozone.

While the Ontario government has said that it is taking measures to curb emissions from its coal-fired power plants by no later than 2015, federal Environment Minister David Anderson has urged Ontario to advance this deadline in order to meet the Canada—U.S. agreed smog reductions by 2007.

We are taking action on air pollution. But we are not doing nearly enough.

We urgently need to reduce air pollution. We have a right to breathe cleaner air and deserve to be protected from the harmful effects of smog.


Eva Ligeti is executive director of the Clean Air Partnership. She was Ontario's first Environmental Commissioner. For information about Smog Summits visit http://www.smogsummit.org.

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