Air Pollution

Letter to the Editor of OHPE

OHPE Bulletin #297.1, February 14, 2003

The Health Effects of Air Pollution: Cancer

There are volumes of literature on the contribution of air toxics to respiratory problems, coronary disease, decreased physical and mental energy, premature death and cancer.

It is only in the past few years that the medical profession has considered the role of environmental factors in cancer, despite numerous worldwide studies. In 1998, I urged the Toronto Board of Health to pay attention to the carcinogenic air pollutants that affect thousands in Ontario and Canada. Finally, in March 2002, Toronto Public Health published "Ten Key Carcinogens in Toronto Workplace and Environment," which assesses the dangers of exposure to air toxics.

There have been 75,000 new chemicals for "better living." introduced since the second World War. Ontario's industries spew over 5,500 tonnes of toxic pollutants. Of all the sources of greenhouse gas emissions, auto/truck transport is the greatest source.

According to the World Health Organization, 80% of all cancers are connected directly or indirectly to environmental factors. On average, 4,600 Toronto residents die each year from cancer. Exposure to carcinogens in the workplace may account for about 400 of these deaths. Nine carcinogens in Toronto's outdoor air exceed "tolerable" levels. The worst carcinogens, including benzene, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, CO2, particulate matter and ozone, are powerful oxidants.

The effects of combined pollutants are at least additive, and in some cases synergistic, and so more powerful. Ozone is capable of destroying organic matter. Continued exposure damages airways in the lungs, much like cigarette smoking. Breast cancer is no longer a disease of the elderly, as 22% of cases are under the age of fifty with some as young as thirty five.

The health cost of smog alone in Ontario is $1 Billion per year in hospitalizations, emergency room visits and absenteeism.

Yet, we have not made the polluters pay their share for contributing to these air toxics. In many cases we actually pay the polluters. Consider, for example, the Ethyl Corporation. Many industries that pollute profit from the effects of pollution in an endless vicious cycle. Zeneca for example, produces carcinogenic herbicide, various pesticides and chlorine-based products as well the cancer drug Novaldex.

As individuals we may not be able to improve this situation, but there are many strategies that concerned groups can propose to local politicians.

One of these strategies is the car-free zones. I submitted a proposal for car-free zones in 2001 to Toronto Planning Division and again in December 10, 2002, to the Works Committee. Due to the great support from councillors and the public, it finally passed! Hopefully we will now have car-free zones by this summer (in Yorkville, Chinatown and Kensington Market)! This strategy presents an opportunity to initiate action on pedestrianization schemes and to actively encourage sustainable commuting without limiting mobility. If this initiative spreads throughout Toronto any smog infested city for that matter it would alleviate smog and the health effects of air, noise, and visual pollution that endless cars and trucks thrust on us daily. There are 105 cities worldwide that have successfully implemented car-free zones to combat the growing stressors of car dependence. We must realize that the car is not the pivotal mode of transportation; public transit, cycling and walking are the way to go.

Lela Gary
Air Pollution Coalition of Ontario

Our introduction to the Letters to the Editor column can be found in the OHPE News section of OHPE 268.0 (http://www.ohpe.ca/ebulletin/ViewAnnouncements.cfm?ISSUE_ID=268&startrow=1).