Traffic on a highway. Image credit: Alexander Popov/Unsplash

When we have contained COVID-19 and something resembling peace returns to Palestine and Israel, one deadly scourge will still be with us: air pollution.

Earlier this year, without fanfare, Health Canada released its 2021 report on the health impacts of air pollution. The federal ministry said what it calls “above background” air pollution contributes to over 15,000 premature deaths a year in Canada.

Worldwide, air pollution is the fifth-leading mortality risk.

In 2017, the bad stuff in the air we breathe was responsible for nearly nine per cent of all deaths globally. That’s 4.9 million premature deaths worldwide, a bit less than the entire population of British Columbia and a half million more than the population of Alberta.

As Health Canada puts it: “Air pollution is recognized globally as a major contributor to the development of disease and premature death and represents the largest environmental risk factor to human health.”

The deadly conditions air pollution fosters include, as we might expect, lung cancer, asthma, bronchitis, and acute respiratory illness, but also heart disease and stroke.

When Health Canada refers to “above background” pollution it means the impurities, chemicals and particles in the air that are not there in remote areas, which are relatively untouched by human activity.

The three killers

Health Canada principally measures three types of air pollution: fine particulate matter (some of which we might call dust), ground-level ozone (a noxious and highly reactive form of oxygen), and nitrogen dioxide.

Health Canada scientists explain how fuel combustion from vehicles, heavy equipment, and coal and gas power plants directly releases both fine particles and nitrogen oxides into the air. That’s bad enough, on its own. In addition, however, that combustion “emits a suite of organic and inorganic compounds that contribute to secondary particulate matter” and the third member of the pollution triumvirate, ozone.

The report points out the ozone is not emitted directly. It is formed when pollutants such as nitrogen oxide and other compounds react, in the atmosphere, with each other and with sunlight.

Based on extensive epidemiological evidence, this chemical gaseous stew causes extensive and widespread “premature mortality.” In fact, the three pollutants account for the majority of all negative health impacts from air pollution.

And it is not necessary to have a great quantity of these three culprits to make at least some of us very sick. Health Canada cites “robust scientific evidence” of bad health impacts “at very low concentrations” of these substances. Like tobacco, the three deadly pollutants are harmful when used as prescribed. There is no evidence, say government of Canada scientists, of any safe exposure level.

Geographically more widespread than we might expect

In Canada, the most severe health impacts of air pollution are in large, densely populated, urban areas, where there is industry and where there are many vehicles. But it might surprise readers to learn than harmful concentrations of pollutants extend far beyond our big cities.

Heath Canada provides a map which shows harmful quantities of particulate matter across wide swaths of Canadian territory, including almost the entire provinces of Ontario, Saskatchewan, Alberta and British Columbia. 

Another map shows that nitrogen dioxide is also widely distributed, especially in Quebec and Ontario. Ozone, on the other hand, is far more concentrated in Canada’s densely populated south.

In addition, the report shows that premature death is not the only negative impact of air pollution. There are also a myriad of different types of debilitating illness and disability — which have a great cost, both economically and in terms of human suffering.

Health Canada’s study quite precisely quantifies the economic and suffering costs of air-pollution-related death and ill health using a formula that includes “medical costs, reduced workplace productivity, pain and suffering, and the other effects of increased health risks.”

For the year 2016, the researchers came up with the staggering figure of $114 billion.

What we can do — stop idling for one

Elsewhere on its website, Health Canada devotes a series of pages to the health effects of air pollution specifically related to road traffic.

Among those are the worsening of asthma symptoms in children and adults, exacerbated allergies, and reduced lung function. The web pages also list some of the other diseases Health Canada identifies in its overall air pollution study, among them heart disease and lung cancer.

When dealing with vehicle pollution and its impacts, Health Canada chooses to pay special attention to young children, because they “can be more sensitive to air pollution than people in other age groups.”

Children breathe in more air in relation to their body weight, meaning they breathe in more contaminants. In addition, children’s bodies’ defence and lung systems are not yet fully developed. And so, pollution affects them more than it does (most of) the rest of us.

And it will come as no surprise to most that children living in areas with heavy traffic have a higher risk of breathing problems than other children. “Exposure to traffic pollution worsens asthma in children and increases the risk of asthma development.”

Among Health Canada’s many recommendations to reduce vehicle-related air pollution are: to walk, cycle or use public transit as much as possible; to maintain a steady speed when driving, and avoid heavy braking or precipitous acceleration; to keep your tires properly inflated; and, last but not least, to not idle your vehicle.

Health Canada tells us we should turn off our vehicles when stopped for more than 10 seconds.

In other words, if you’re sitting in your car texting, chatting on your phone, looking up the latest stock quotes, or just having your lunch — please turn it off.

Your pollution kills.

Karl Nerenberg has been a journalist and filmmaker for more than 25 years. He is rabble’s politics reporter.

Image credit: Alexander Popov/Unsplash

Karl Nerenberg

Karl Nerenberg joined rabble in 2011 to cover Canadian politics. He has worked as a journalist and filmmaker for many decades, including two and a half decades at CBC/Radio-Canada. Among his career highlights...