Breathing, it appears, is the new smoking.

As with most Canadians, the Health Insider team was alarmed at the poor air quality in many places of Canada this summer. Mega forest fires in Northern Ontario, BC, Alberta, Quebec and NWT raised awareness about the health impact of pollution. We’re curious to research the long-term health impact of air pollution, and report back to you.

A study released in late August from the University of Chicago and the Air Quality Life Index reports that air pollution remains the greatest external threat to human life expectancy on the planet.

According to the new study, air pollution is as toxic to humans as smoking cigarettes, is 3 times more dangerous than alcohol and unsafe water and 5 times more lethal than being in a car crash.

Even though Canada’s air quality is consistently ranked among the cleanest in the world, Health Canada estimates that pollution contributed to 15,300 premature deaths in 2016.

The economic impact attributed to air pollution in that year is estimated to be $120 billion. This is equivalent to approximately 6% of Canada’s 2016 real gross domestic product.

Causes of Air Pollution

According to Environment Canada, transportation is one of the largest sources of air pollution and greenhouse gases in Canada.

Cars, trucks, buses, trains, and planes all add to the problem, accounting for over one quarter of all greenhouse gas and air pollutant emissions in Canada.

Fifty one per cent is caused by industry, with oil and gas coming in as the country’s largest emitter of climate-warming methane gas.

Forest fires are a contributor, with recent mega fires increasing consumer awareness around air quality in Canada, something that we have had the privilege of ignoring for many years.

Source: Energy Canada/Government of Canada

Risks of Air Pollution

Being constantly exposed to fine particles can represent a real health hazard in the long term. It increases the risk of premature mortality from heart disease, stroke and lung cancer.

It is also connected with respiratory diseases such as emphysema and asthma. Some scientists suspect air pollutants cause birth defects.

Not everyone reacts the same to air pollution. Young children and people with weakened immune systems are often more sensitive.

Those with conditions such as asthma and lung disease can find their symptoms worsen. The length of exposure and amount and type of pollutants are also factors.

Entire ecosystems feel the impact of air pollution. Just as with humans, animals also suffer health effects from exposure to pollution.

Air pollution also contributes to the climate crisis as it contains greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxides, and fluorinated gases. Greenhouse gases cause the climate to warm by trapping heat from the Sun in the Earth’s atmosphere.

Despite this knowledge, the report points out that the funds allocated to the fight against air pollution represent only a small part of the money dedicated to infectious diseases.

In recent years, scientists discovered how to measure the impact on life expectancy as it is impacted by air pollution. The organization behind the project is called AQLI, which is a collaboration between the University of Chicago and EPIC – the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago.

What is the AQLI?

Launched in 2018, The Air Quality Life Index, or AQLI, measures and communicates the health risks posed by particulate matter air pollution.

The AQLI converts particulate air pollution into a quantifiable impact on life expectancy. This analysis has revealed that particulate matter air pollution cuts global life expectancy short by nearly 2 years.

This life expectancy loss makes air pollution more deadly than communicable diseases such as tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS, cigarette smoking, and even war.

What Can the Average Canadian do to Help?

While it may seem that the problem is too huge to tackle for the average Canadian, the reality is, we all have a part to play in reducing air pollution. Here are some ways you can help:

  • If you have a fossil fuel burning car, drive it as little as possible. Take public transit or cycle.
  • For your next vehicle purchase, consider going electric or hybrid.
  • Reduce your carbon footprint in your home by making it more energy efficient and investing in sustainable sources of energy.
  • Use as little energy in your home as possible.
  • Recycle yard trimmings instead of burning them.
  • Plant and care for trees
  • Avoid using aerosol cans.
  • Vote with your wallet – beware of companies that “greenwash”.
  • Try using a push mower or a newer, more efficient gas mower.
  • Invest in sustainable energy companies.

All of this may seem hopeless and lead to eco-anxiety, which is understandable. However, one of the most important antidotes to eco-anxiety is climate action.

How many of us care enough that we, our kids and grandkids aren’t crippled by avoidable environmentally induced illnesses to actually do something about it? Tell our community about the actions you are taking on our social media channels.

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