2023 14-2 April News Section

Air pollution and our health

By Alison Hobbs

On a clear, blue-sky day, we feel lucky not to live in some distant, smog-laden city. However, Ottawa’s fresh air is not as fresh as we think. It is full of particulate matter, as the scientists call it, and it affects our health more than most people realize.

What causes this pollution? Exacerbated in summer by smoke from distant forest fires that not only affects people’s breathing but also transmits diseases, the main culprit is transportation. In addition to gas-exhaust fumes, tiny particles from our tires blend with the air every time we brake. The finer airborne particles can cross protective membranes and get into our bloodstream.

Trucks lined up on King Edward Avenue near Rideau Street. People living close to King Edward are exposed to high levels of air pollution. Photo: Alison Hobbs.

One in three Canadians live close enough to major roads to be affected.

Despair is useless.
Taking action is a
much better response.

In 2021 Ecology Ottawa’s ongoing “Breathe Easy” campaign was launched after researchers had observed and analyzed air quality in 46 locations across the city. The conclusion was that people living close to truck routes like King Edward Avenue were “subject to elevated levels of contaminant concentrations.” No surprises there. But it is worth remembering that contaminated air knows no barriers and cannot be contained within municipal zones. It seeps indoors as well.

In Ontario alone, the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment (CAPE) claims that 6,600 people die prematurely because of unhealthy air each year, not to mention the huge economic impact from days off work, hospital admissions and so on. We are all vaguely aware of this, but it is shocking to hear from CAPE that air pollution has also been discovered to accelerate or increase heart disease, dementia and cancer. There is a correlation between breathing unhealthy air and low birth weight in newborns, as well as diabetes, obesity and death from COVID. Our mental health is also at risk, especially when air pollution is combined with noise pollution.

Despair is useless. Taking action is a much better response. We can keep reminding our elected representatives, civil servants at all levels of government, and our friends and relations, that the solutions are fairly obvious. We have to reduce our dependence on motorized traffic in every part of Ottawa.

Plans for the city must incorporate “last-mile solutions” for deliveries and give priority to creating neighbourhoods in which we can choose to walk or cycle to access the shops, services and amenities on which we rely. In Lowertown we would welcome such a change.