Air pollution kills 1,700 a year in Toronto: Study

Thursday, July 8, 2004 – Toronto Star

Air pollution is to blame for more deaths in Toronto than originally believed, city health officials said in a study released today.

The study by the city’s Public Health Department estimates that five air pollutants contribute to about 1,700 premature deaths and 6,000 hospital admissions in the city every year.

“These premature deaths and hospital admissions are preventable,” said Dr. Barbara Yaffe, the city’s acting medical officer of health. “They would have likely not occurred when they did without the exposure to air pollution.

A similar study in 2000 suggested air pollution was behind 1,000 deaths and 5,500 hospitalizations each year.

But better information on the effects of air pollution has allowed health officials to paint a more accurate picture, said Yaffe.

If that information was available four years ago, the 2000 study would have reflected the higher numbers of deaths, she said.

“I think that’s a fair inference.”

Overall, the air quality is roughly the same now as it was four years ago, with higher levels of some pollutants and lower levels of others, said Yaffe.

Figures from 2002 show that Toronto’s nitrogen dioxide levels were the fourth highest of 27 cities surveyed around the world over a 10-year period.

The study also looked at the effects of other pollutants on people’s health, including carbon monoxide, sulphur dioxide, ozone and fine particles in the air.

The consistently high pollution levels are partly due to an increase in vehicle traffic and a decline in the use of public transit, the study said.

The Greater Toronto Area is also a “net importer” of pollution from the U.S., said Dr. David Pengelly, one of the study’s authors.

The study made a number of recommendations to curb air pollution, including more money for public transit, promoting energy conservation and tougher air quality standards.

Many other major cities in the world have well-developed subway systems, and the billions of dollars needed to make Toronto comparable would be money well spent, said Pengelly.

“We are paying now, but we’re paying to deal with health problems,” said Pengelly. “That’s costing the economy.”

“One might say, `Well yes, it will cost billions to build a decent subway system,’ but it fact we may ultimately save substantial of those billions by keeping our people healthy.”

A large body of scientific evidence says acute exposure to air pollution can cause elevated mortality rates and lead to hospitalization for heart and lung ailments.

Scientists have also concluded that air pollution causes lesser problems in tens of thousands of people each year, such as chronic bronchitis and increased asthma symptoms.