Photo: Celebrate Clean Air Day: Breathe!

(Credit: Mark Stevens via Flickr)

By Lisa Gue, Environmental Health Policy Analyst

It looks like everyone is celebrating Clean Air Day. We'll each take more than 20,000 breaths today. I sometimes hear people talk about environmental action as "lifestyle choices". Do you choose to take the bus? Do you choose to use green cleaning products? Do you choose to spend time in nature? But our intimate connection to the environment is about life itself as much as it is about lifestyle. Breathing is not optional!

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We should all have the right to a healthy environment with clean air to breathe. But what just entered your lungs besides that precious mix of oxygen, nitrogen, argon and carbon dioxide that constitutes Earth's atmosphere? Chances are, you sucked back an unhealthy dose of particulate matter, smog-related gases (especially ground-level ozone) and a cocktail of volatile organic compounds off-gasing from household products and other sources.

In Canada, we are fortunate that our air pollution problems are less acute than in global pollution hotspots. A recent Chinese report dubbed the heavily polluted air in Beijing as "barely suitable" for human life. Nevertheless, the Canadian Medical Association estimates that 21,000 Canadians die prematurely as a result of air pollution in a year and that the economic cost of air pollution-related illness and death in Canada tops $8 billion. Common air pollutants are linked to lung and heart diseases. Last fall, the International Agency for Research on Cancer concluded that air pollution also causes cancer.

To quote Prime Minister Stephen Harper, "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." (October 10, 2006, announcing Canada's Clean Air Act.)

This is the eighth Clean Air Day since the government pledged to cut air pollution in half by 2015, as outlined in Turning the Corner: An Action Plan to Reduce Greenhouse Gases and Air Pollution (April 2007). Over the years, we've seen a lot of planning but little action. The latest plan is for a Canada-wide Air Quality Management System. Federal regulation to curb pollution from industrial sources is supposed to be a key pillar of the system. But although a succession of federal environment ministers have enthused about this initiative, the government had not delivered a single regulation until yesterday, June 3, 2014.

Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq announced that the long-awaited regulation is finally on its way and will initially target pollution reductions from three industrial sectors or equipment groups: the cement-manufacturing sector, stationary gas engines (used in the oil and gas sector to move gas through pipelines, for example), and non-utility boilers and heaters (used to create hot water or steam for industrial processes). The Air Quality Management System calls for national emission reduction standards for 15 industrial sectors, including some biggies, like electricity generation and oil and gas.

It is good to see renewed action on this important file. I'm not holding my breath for a 50 per cent reduction in pollution by 2015, but the government should commit to an ambitious schedule for regulating the remaining sectors and ensure the Air Quality Management System is fully implemented without further delay.

Now that would be a breath of fresh air!

June 4, 2014

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