Chronic exposure to air pollution causes nearly nine times as many premature deaths in Canada as traffic crashes, University of B.C. researchers say in an article recently published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal.
About 21,000 Canadians die prematurely from the ill effects of air pollution each year, compared to 2,400 from traffic crashes.
The article is timely, coming as it does on the heels of last week’s declaration by the World Health Organization that air pollution is a carcinogen. Diesel fumes were previously deemed cancer-causing, but this is the first time air pollution as a whole has been classified as carcinogenic.
if you live near a busy road, your chances of cancer is increased tremendously.
In their provocative commentary in CMAJ, Michael Bauer and co-researchers Conor Reynolds and Perry Hystad said there’s an accumulating body of evidence showing negative health effects from traffic-related air pollution. They suggest various actions that may be taken, including copying European cities that levy fees on cars in congested areas to reduce traffic.
Brauer, a professor in UBC’s school of population and public health, has spent years doing research on traffic-related air pollution and its effect on human health; much of it supported by grants from Health Canada.
Air pollution is mainly associated with asthma, other lung conditions and cardiovascular diseases. Exhaust fumes from diesel, a known carcinogen, are tied to lung cancer. A 2008 federal report estimated that on an annual basis, there are 306 premature deaths, 1,158 hospital admissions, and 8,763 emergency department visits related to air pollution in B.C.
Nearly a third of the country’s population lives within 500 metres of a highway or 100 metres from a major urban road, exposing them to toxic fumes from more than 15,000 cars per day, according to the CMAJ report. Such air pollution triggers “inflammation, oxidative stress and imbalance in the autonomic nervous system” which includes heart rhythm disturbances.
The commentary highlights various options to help reduce the ill effects of traffic-related air pollution:
• Reduce emissions by reducing traffic congestion and expanding infrastructure for electric cars.
• Limit truck traffic to specific routes and separate cycling or walking routes from busy roads.
• Improve land-use planning and traffic management by placing schools, daycares and retirement homes at least 150 metres from busy streets.
Cities across Europe are leading the way when it comes to improving air quality and reducing vehicle emissions. London was the first major city in the world to introduce a congestion zone fee of 10 to 12 pounds for vehicles entering the city centre on weekdays. The fee has reportedly resulted in “an estimated gain of 183 years of life per 100,000 residents within the zone over a 10-year period,” Brauer said.
Those who fail to pay the fee face a fine of 130 pounds.
In Rome, the establishment of low emission zones has been estimated to have resulted in an even greater benefit: 921 years of life gained per 100,000 residents living near major roads over ten years. Brauer said Vancouver’s downtown area isn’t as congested as many large cities around the world but there are streets such as West Georgia, Knight and Kingsway that have plenty of congestion affecting air quality.
“Situations like that are certainly of no benefit to anyone, whether we’re talking about drivers or residents,” he said in an interview.
Asked to comment on the CMAJ article, Mayor Gregor Robertson agreed that reducing car congestion to improve air quality is an important goal.
“Building a rapid transit line along Broadway is the key to reducing vehicle congestion and improving air quality in Vancouver. There are over 150,000 daily car trips along central Broadway and it is the busiest bus corridor in North America,” Robertson said in an email.
“With a million more people moving to the Metro region in the coming decades, we simply can’t accommodate future growth by adding new cars and roads.”
Dr. Menn Biagtan, program manager for the B.C. Lung Association, said in a previous interview: “We breathe 20,000 times a day, that’s 10,000 litres of air passing through our lungs — much of it a toxic soup of pollutants.”
The WHO’s cancer agency, International Agency for Research on Cancer — said in 2010, there were more than 220,000 lung cancer deaths associated with air pollution around the world. The most polluted cities are in China and India where people often wear masks for protection.