Thursday, August 14, 2008

Air pollution kills

According to CTV, a CMA report claims that 21,000 Canadians will die from air pollution in 2008 with 3,000 of those deaths due to short-term exposure to smog. The study (No Breathing Room: National Illness Costs of Air Pollution), was completed by the Canadian Medical Association (CMA), and released on Wednesday.

Those are pretty big numbers. And, it appears they’re going to get worse. The study suggests that between now and 2031 roughly 90,000 Canadians will die from the acute short-term effects of air pollution. And worse, more than 700,000 will die from long term exposure.

Although this is the first large-scale report on the impact of air pollution across Canada, it should come as no surprise that air pollution is a severe health hazard across North America. The problem has been noted in magazines and newspaper articles for years.

In January, 2004, the Ohio Environmental Council noted that “fine particles from fossil fuel power plants were contributing to an estimated 1,900 premature deaths in Ohio each year”. Fine particulate emissions just from off-road diesel engines, such as construction equipment, were thought to have contributed to 340 premature deaths annually.

Ohio is one of Ontario’s southern neighbours, on the other side of Lake Ontario. It has a population roughly one third that of Canada.

The 2004 report from Ohio states that: “Fine particulate matter (PM2.5) penetrates deep into the lungs, making asthma more severe, causing chronic bronchitis, degrading lung function, aggravating cardiovascular disease and potentially triggering heart attacks”.

“Ozone may lead to death and serious illness. Ozone inflames lung passages and makes breathing difficult. It can trigger asthma attacks, and it increases susceptibility to respiratory illness and respiratory-related hospital visits. Repeated exposure to high ozone levels permanently damages the lungs”.

CTV notes that: “The CMA used a model developed by the Ontario Medical Association to come up with its results. The organization took the model and expanded it to a national level, using the "highly predictive" pollutants, particulate matter and ozone, as measuring sticks to judge air quality”.

These are the same pollutants found in the Ohio report. And, there have been other warning signs.

In Canada, medical doctors and scientists have been at a loss to explain the increase in the incidence in asthma across the country. Although exposure to secondhand smoke is often pointed to as the culprit, the increase (doubling since 1980) in asthma cases has been coincidental to a marked decrease in smoking prevalence (and thus a corresponding decrease in exposure to secondhand smoke) over the same period of time.

The annual death toll estimated by the CMA is actually quite staggering; 21,000 Canadians every year with a warning that those figures will likely get worse in the years ahead. And the numbers are interesting from another angle.

Current estimates from Health Canada suggest there are 1,000 deaths due to secondhand smoke in Canada each year. That’s a computer generated estimate, just like the estimates from the CMA report. But, obviously the impact of air pollution is a much greater threat to the health of Canadians than secondhand smoke; twenty-one times greater, in fact.

Successive federal and provincial governments have been devoting vast amounts of time and effort, not to mention hundreds of millions of dollars, in a campaign to eliminate the alleged hazards of secondhand smoke.

The association between lung cancer/heart attacks and exposure to secondhand smoke is very weak and a matter of considerable debate in the scientific community. Studies showing no increase in risk due to secondhand smoke exposure outnumber those which do by roughly 5 to 1.

Yet senior levels of government focus on a campaign to dehumanize and discredit smokers, instituting draconian bans and imposing punitive levels of taxation on smokers.

The fact that 21,000 Canadians may die this year due to air pollution is tragic.

The fact that so much money and effort is put into protecting people from a SHS threat which may not even exist, while ignoring the substantially greater threat of air pollution, is outrageous. The CMA report should have people questioning the priorities of their senior levels of government.

Canadians should be demanding answers.

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