Health Canada says impact of air pollution costs more than $100B annually

Higher PM2.5 concentrations were found in many populous census areas, such as the Lower Fraser Valley of British Columbia, the Calgary (pictured)–Edmonton Corridor in Alberta, and along the Windsor–Quebec City Corridor in Ontario and Quebec. Natural emissions, notably wildfires, are also included in Health Canada’s analysis. Photo credit: Una,

A new report from Health Canada details the health and financial consequences of exposure to ambient air pollution across Canada.

After analyzing outdoor air pollution data spanning 2014 to 2017, the report’s findings suggest that air pollution is responsible for approximately 15,300 premature deaths annually in Canada, resulting in a total economic impact of $120 billion (2016).

Millions of Canadians suffering from symptoms of asthma and acute respiratory syndrome contribute significantly to the economic impacts of air pollution.

The $120 billion total economic impact (estimated in 2016) is mainly comprised of premature deaths, which account for $114 billion. Non-fatal endpoints — such as emergency room visits, restricted activity days, bronchitis, and asthma — amounted to $5.6 billion.

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The pollutants responsible include fine particulate matter (PM2.5), ground-level ozone, and nitrogen dioxide (NO2), according to the report “Health Impacts of Air Pollution in Canada”.

“These pollutants are included because there is robust epidemiological evidence of their adverse health impacts as well as the ability to accurately estimate the spatial distribution of their ambient concentrations across Canada,” the Health Canada report states.

The report refers to the Global Burden of Disease project, which reveals that air pollution is the fifth leading mortality risk in the world, responsible for 8.7% of deaths globally in 2017, or 4.9 million premature deaths worldwide.

The Health Canada report states that fuel combustion from on-road vehicles and off-road equipment, as well as power generation such as coal or natural gas sources, directly release particles and nitrogen oxides (NOx) into the air. Additionally, combustion emits a suite of organic and inorganic compounds that contribute to secondary PM2.5 and ozone, which is not emitted directly, but formed from precursors such as NOx and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) via secondary reactions in the atmosphere and reactions with sunlight.

Natural emissions are also included in Health Canada’s analysis, notably wildfires.

Annual average PM2.5 concentrations for 2015–2017 were derived from estimation methods combining remote-sensing observations, chemical transport modelling, and ground-based observations, the report states.

Higher PM2.5 concentrations were found in many of the more populous census areas, such as the Lower Fraser Valley of British Columbia, the Calgary–Edmonton Corridor in Alberta, and along the Windsor–Quebec City Corridor in Ontario and Quebec. The highest concentrations, ranging from 6.7 to 8.8 micrograms, were observed in northern Alberta regions, and southern B.C.

In terms of ozone concentrations, Ontario and Alberta reached levels of 39 to 41 parts per billion, with the highest levels of 42 to 48 parts per billion observed in southern Alberta, the report states.

Southern Alberta also had the highest concentrations of NO2, with some areas reaching 7.5 to 12.4 parts per billion.

Estimated background concentrations for Canada:

  • 8 micrograms per cubic metre (µg/m3) for PM2.5 (annual average).
  • 15 parts per billion by volume (ppb) for NO2 (annual average).
  • 26 ppb for annual ozone (annual average of daily 1-hour maximum) and 28 ppb for summer ozone (May–September average of daily 1-hour maximum).

When it comes to estimating the economic impact of air pollution, the report considers the potential social, economic and public welfare consequences, including medical costs, reduced workplace productivity, pain and suffering, and other effects of increased health risks. Health incidents include events such as child acute bronchitis episodes and respiratory emergency room visits.

With approximately 63% of the total Canadian population residing in Ontario and Quebec, these two provinces see the heaviest health impacts from air pollution, both in terms of mortality count and premature deaths per 100,000 population. Ontario had the highest number of premature deaths related to air pollution in 2016 with 6,600.

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