When Clean Air Partnership was established 20 years ago, air pollution was a public health crisis that rightly attracted considerable media and political attention. Smog days were the norm, with 53 days recorded in 2005 alone. In 2005, the Ontario Medical Association released ‘The Illness Costs of Air Pollution’ which showed that 5,800 Ontarians suffered premature deaths and over 16,000 hospital admissions annually as a result of air pollution. This foundational report put a societal economic cost on pollution, $7.8bn annually for Ontario. The report expedited urgent policy action on improving air quality. In response, Clean Air Partnership convened local government representatives from across the province (the first of its kind) to work on this cross-jurisdictional issue. Together, the group worked to coordinate the development of municipal smog reduction plans.
In 2001, Ontario had five coal-fired generating stations. By 2013, this number was reduced to only one, which closed the following year. Concurrently, industrial emissions were improved through site-specific standards and emission controls with O. Reg. 419/05. Cleaner vehicle production and emissions testing regulations also reduced transportation emissions. Ontario has not seen a smog day since 2013.
Problem solved? Far from it.
In 2019, Health Canada released the 2019 Heath Impacts of Air Pollution in Canada report, which provided updated estimates of morbidity and premature mortality from anthropogenic air pollution. This report estimates 14,600 Canadian premature deaths from air pollution annually – an increase of 200 deaths compared to 2017. In Ontario specifically, they noted 6,700 premature deaths – an increase of 1,100 from the 2005 Illness Costs of Air Pollution study (albeit with a different methodology). Despite reductions in most common air pollutants in Ontario over the past twenty years, the health penalty Ontarians pay as a result of air pollution is relatively unchanged.
As Canada de-industrializes, vehicles will occupy a more significant share of emissions than in the past. While we have witnessed considerable emissions reductions from electricity generation over the past decade, our transportation emissions have significantly increased. Engines may be cleaner per litre of fuel consumed, but they are larger than ever, and there are a lot more of them. Non-tailpipe emissions from tires and braking increase annually, and will continue to grow despite efforts to electrify the transportation sector. Our continually sprawling patterns of urban development and the proliferation of online shopping have resulted in considerable growth in freight movement, compounding the issue.
Recent research demonstrates that variations in pollution levels within cities are immense, yet our monitoring systems are sparsely located, designed to capture variation between communities rather than within communities. The 2019 Near-Road Air Pollution Pilot Study from the Southern Ontario Centre for Atmospheric Aerosol Research at the University of Toronto presents some worrying research, demonstrating how near-road populations are exposed to far higher pollution concentrations. As Canada rapidly urbanizes – with one in three Canadians now living near major roads – near-road exposure is an emerging and extremely concerning area of research.
Canadian communities need near-road monitoring to better understand the health implications for our populations. In the meantime, there are policies that could be implemented to provide considerable and immediate health improvements, such as the removal of older heavy-duty, high-emitting vehicles from our roadways. Our most recent estimates from Health Canada show 6,700 premature deaths annually in Ontario from air pollution. If those deaths occurred on our roads, as opposed to beside our roadways, an unfathomable amount of resources would be mobilized to address it. Instead, air pollution remains an ambient, but very present threat to the health of Ontarians.
By Kevin Behan, Deputy Director, Clean Air Partnership