Photo: Action still needed on air quality (Gasp! Fraser Institute has it wrong)

As Canada's population ages and becomes more vulnerable to the effects of air pollution. (Credit: Fanboy30 via Flickr)

By Lisa Gue, Environmental Health Policy Analyst

If we're to believe a new report from the Fraser Institute, Canadians can breathe easy when it comes to air pollution. According to the conservative think tank, air quality in Canada has generally improved since 1970, so why worry about it?

Here's why.

There is no "safe" threshold for exposure to key pollutants. Current levels of air pollution take a toll on human health. The Canadian Medical Association estimates that in single year air pollution in Canada is responsible for 21,000 deaths, 11,000 hospital admissions, 92,000 trips to the emergency room and 620,000 doctor's office visits. The associated economic costs are pegged at $8 billion and rising... up to $250 billion by 2031 as Canada's population ages and becomes more vulnerable to the effects of air pollution.

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The Fraser Institute attacks Canada's doctors for projecting increasing health and economic costs of air pollution on the basis of current (2008) air quality measures. Air quality might improve in the future, say the report's authors, and if it does, the costs to human health will be lower.

That would be nice, but it will take concerted action to ensure continuous improvement in air quality for all Canadians. While air quality in many parts of the country has improved since the 1970s as a result of previous interventions, progress has slowed or stalled in recent decades. Environment Canada indicators for two key smog-forming pollutants show that fine particulate matter concentrations since 2000 have not moved consistently or significantly either up or down, while Canadians' exposure to ground level ozone increased between 1990 and 2006. (Source: Air Quality Indicators).

Moreover, the Fraser Institute report ignores the potential for rising emissions from certain sectors. Projected growth of the oil sands, for example, will cause air quality to deteriorate if we don't take action.

(This is perhaps no surprise. The Fraser Institute has a history of trying to downplay the seriousness of environmental problems and discouraging solutions. The Institute has argued that second-hand cigarette smoke isn't a serious health concern and that cutting back on use of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) to save the ozone layer would not be worthwhile because it would require "large sacrifices on the part of everyone.")

In 2006, a David Suzuki Foundation analysis showed that Canada's air quality objectives were generally less protective than those of leading jurisdictions. Unfortunately, this remains true today. Canada's air quality regime is overdue for an update. There is a glimmer of hope: federal and provincial environment ministers have committed to developing a new air quality management system for Canada. This new system needs to strengthen Canadian air quality standards in line with leading international standards and introduce credible controls on industrial emissions and other key sources. And it needs to be implemented now.

I find myself agreeing with Prime Minister Harper, who said in 2006: "Poor air quality isn't just a minor irritant to be endured. It is a serious problem that poses an increasing risk to the health and well-being of Canadians."

The only problem is, the prime minister has yet to follow through on the commitment he made at the time to introduce a new regulatory framework for air emissions.

February 1, 2012

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May 12, 2015
9:54 PM

Why would we believe any Fraser Institute conclusion when their “research” reflects the goals of their donors, such as Koch Brothers who IRS records reveal have donated $4.3 million and $67,000,000 million to the climate denial movement and who are now the largest foreign owners of Alberta tarsands leases with interests in coal transport and pipelines. The Fraser Institute has the same agenda as Koch —deregulation, free trade, eliminating corporate taxes and unrestrained mining. They supported Stephen Harper pulling out of the Kyoto Accords. More needs to be written about the Fraser Institute biases especially as now CBC leaves out “ultra right wing think tank” when quoting the conclusions of their “peer reviewed” research-‘. Research that concludes off shore drilling is good for the BC economy, but leaves out the cost of major spills like the $60 billion BP Gulf of Mexico disaster that also wiped out a thriving shellfish aquaculture industry needs to be exposed especially as summarized in their annual report, their influence in the media and in government policy committees is increasing.

Jun 21, 2012
7:32 PM

The idea that the air in Canada is becoming cleaner is not true for many Canadians—-the huge increase in wood smoke pollution in Montreal is just one example. However the real tragedy and one that we deal with every week is that wood smoke and the carcinogenic vapours pose a huge threat to neighbours but disperse before reaching a monitoring unit. The Air Quality Health Index (AQHI) does not protect residents from localized concentrations of wood fire emissions. Carcinogens are omitted from the index as, according to a former Albert Env Minister, the public become very emotional about cancer risks. Alan Smith Alberta Director Canadian Clean Air Alliance

Feb 01, 2012
6:12 PM

I'm getting tired of the Fraser Institute's insults upon injury. When I try to do the right thing for the environment by cycling rather than driving I am told I am often at risk of damaging my health due to the levels of fine particulates.

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