Pollution more deadly than smoking, AIDS and war: report
Air, soil and water pollution and exposure to toxic chemicals killed three times more people.
OTTAWA — Pollution kills more people around the world than war and infectious diseases, says a new report – proof, environmental lobbyists say, of why Canada needs enforceable national air quality standards.
The Lancet medical journal study says at least 9 million people died around the globe in 2015 because of pollution. Almost half of those deaths occurred in India and China, nine out of 10 were in low and middle-income countries, and those most affected came from marginalized and poor communities, the report found.
Air, soil and water pollution and exposure to toxic chemicals killed three times more people than AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis combined and 15 times more people than war and violence, it concludes.
Canada has one of the lower rates of pollution-related deaths, according to the report, less than 50 deaths per 100,000 people. By comparison, India, Pakistan and Afghanistan – as well as at least a dozen African nations – recorded rates of more than 151 deaths per 100,000 people.
Bruce Lanphear, a health sciences professor at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, was one of the 40 scientists who worked on the two-year study. He said Canada needs to create better surveillance research to better explore potential links between pollution and diseases like cancer, diabetes, respiratory illnesses and heart failure.
“Pollution is man made and that means that we can control it and that means we can prevent these diseases,” Lanphear said.
“We spend so much on trying to develop new drugs or on treatment, and this is becoming increasingly costly. But here with pollution we know enough to act and we know enough to prevent a substantial amount of disease and death.”
Environmental Defence program manager Muhannad Malas said Canada is one of the only developed countries without national, legally binding and enforceable standards for air quality.
“What we have in Canada is basically guidelines,” Malas said.
Canada has ambient air quality standards under the Environmental Protection Act that set certain objectives for ozone, sulphur dioxide and fine particulate matter, but they are only voluntary. They also don’t include several of the most troublesome pollutants, including cadmium and benzene, he added.
Benzene is a carcinogen which the World Health Organization says has no safe level of exposure for humans.
It is also one of the chemicals which leaked without warning to residents in Sarnia’s “Chemical Valley” among nearly 500 incidents of chemical spills uncovered by a joint investigation by the Toronto Star, Global News and journalism students at Ryerson and Concordia universities this month.
There was only one public warning issued about those incidents.
Chemical Valley – a 40-square kilometre region in Sarnia which is home to more than five dozen chemical plants and oil refineries – was singled out in the Lancet report as an “environmental injustice” for First Nations in the area.
The Lancet report also notes an environmental injustice for First Nations in northern Alberta due to pollution from the oil sands.
Malas said provincial governments have some laws in place, but they are not uniform. A national standard that can be – and is – enforced is what’s necessary, he argued.
“What we’re asking for in this case is national enforceable standards that are at least on par with (Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development) standards.”
In 2016, Ontario introduced strict new standards for benzene but many plants in the Chemical Valley area say those standards can’t be met – plants the government has since given an exemption.
Environment Minister Catherine McKenna has committed to updating the Canadian Environmental Protection Act next year. That’s the perfect vehicle and the perfect time to finally step up and put strict limits on air pollution and exposure to toxic chemicals to protect Canadians, said Malas.
A parliamentary committee studied the issue in 2016, and made more than 80 recommendations last spring to amend the law, including developing national enforceable standards for air and drinking water quality, in concert with the provinces.
McKenna said recently she is studying the recommendations and intends to introduce legislation by June 2018.