Health of Canadians demands real action on clean air

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Health of Canadians demands real action on clean air

by Nora Sobolov and Kenneth Maybee
As we begin to assess the federal government’s new Clean Air Regulatory Framework, the Canadian Lung Association has several stark facts squarely in view:
·        Six million Canadians – one in every five – currently suffers from lung disease;
·        2.5 million Canadians have asthma and the rate in children is 4 times higher than it was 20 years ago;
·        COPD – Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease – is the 4th leading cause of death in Canada, and the only one still rising;
·        One Canadian dies every 20 minutes from lung disease;
·        Lung illness costs Canada more than $15 billion each year. This includes the direct costs to the health care system as well as the estimated cost of lost work time and degraded productivity.
The links between air pollution and respiratory illness are strong and well established scientifically. The increases in deaths and hospital visits related to respiratory illness during urban smog events are just the tip of the iceberg. There is growing evidence as well that global warming will further erode lung health. Changes in temperature and precipitation due to climate change are predicted to increase air pollution levels, forest fires, mould growth and pollen levels, all of which exacerbate lung disease.
When we consider any program or policy on clean air, The Lung Association’s bottom line is quite simple: will these actions produce absolute reductions in air pollution and greenhouse gases. Only real reductions will improve the air we breathe and lower the current staggering burden of lung disease in Canada.
From this perspective the federal government’s new regulatory framework is cause for both encouragement and concern.
On the air pollution side, the proposal to introduce regulations that mandate hard caps and significant reductions for major pollutants is an important, groundbreaking step forward. If the projected reductions in air pollutants are achieved, it will literally save thousands of lives and improve the quality of life for millions of Canadians suffering from respiratory illness. Also positive is the plan to regulate the contaminants affecting indoor air quality, such as radon, pollutants for cleaning products, and off-gassing from new carpets. Since Canadians spend 90% of their time indoors, it is critically important that we ensure that indoor environments are clean and healthy.
On the climate change side, the government’s proposed reliance on intensity-based targets – reductions in emissions per unit of production – raises serious concerns from a health perspective. The government’s projection of an absolute reduction in greenhouse gases by 2020 of 20% (from 2006 levels) would mean a significant improvement. However, the unanswered question Canadians must ask is: will an intensity-based approach actually deliver the results the government anticipates.
Intensity-based emissions in this country have gone down dramatically over the past 20 years, but total emissions have gone up as the economy has expanded. The government will need to demonstrate convincingly how its new approach will achieve the critical goal of absolute reductions in GHGs. A further concern is that the proposed compliance mechanisms under the regulations may be too generous in providing industry with alternatives to real reductions in emissions.
Beyond those concerns there is the additional question about the government’s plans post-2020. The government has stated that its goal is to achieve a 60% to 70% reduction in greenhouses gases by 2050, but the strategy for actually getting there is not addressed in the announced plan. Canadians need – and deserve – a long-term solution to smog-choked air and rising rates of lung disease.
We will need leadership at the national level to achieve the much-needed reductions in air pollution, greenhouse gas emissions and rising rates of respiratory disease for the long-term if Canadians are truly going to be able to breathe easier.
The Lung Association stands ready to work with the government, the opposition parties and other stakeholders on strong, long-term, strategies to reduce air pollution – which kills thousands of Canadians every year - and on serious steps to reduce greenhouse gases. We are hopeful the other national health organizations will do the same.
We urge all parties to work constructively towards real progress on air quality – the six million Canadians suffering from lung disease simply cannot wait any longer.
The government’s proposed Clean Air Regulatory Framework offers some promise – but much work remains to be done.
Nora Sobolov is the President and CEO of The Lung Association
Kenneth Maybee is the Chair of Environmental Issues for The Lung Association
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Page Last Updated: 07/07/2008