Exhaust pollution kills 440 each year, report finds

POOR AIR QUALITY

Exhaust pollution kills 440 each year, report finds

Thirty-per-cent drop in traffic would save nearly 200 lives and $900-million in health costs, city’s medical officer of health says

JEFF GRAY

November 6, 2007

Exhaust from the tailpipes of cars, trucks and buses in Toronto is responsible for about 440 premature deaths each year, mostly of elderly people, and a massive $2.2-billion bill for health costs, a new report says.

The city’s medical officer of health, David McKeown, unveiled the study yesterday, suggesting that a 30-per-cent reduction in traffic in the city was possible and would save nearly 200 lives and $900-million in health costs.

City officials and political allies of Mayor David Miller, who has made fighting climate change a central theme, insist they are starting to enact measures that will reduce traffic in the city.

They point to the Toronto Transit Commission’s $6-billion “Transit City” plan for 120 kilometres of new light-rail lines to be built by 2021 as the centrepiece of efforts to change travel habits, along with measures to redesign streets to be more inviting to cyclists and pedestrians.

But some transportation policy experts said the idea that Toronto could actually reduce car use by as much as 30 per cent is highly unlikely any time soon, no matter what the city or the provincial government does.

“Is their heart in the right place? Yes. How they can actually do it is another matter,” said transportation consultant Edward Levy, who sat on a brainstorming panel for the new Greater Toronto Transportation Authority, which is to come up with a plan for the region. “It’s not going to happen overnight.”

He said decades of suburban sprawl and a long-standing record of starving public transit that has left buses overcrowded and infrequent mean it will take generations to shift travel patterns. “You can be anti-car all you like, but if you don’t have the public-transit alternative that makes sense, people aren’t going to use it,” Mr. Levy said. “… It’s all about service.”

Toronto Transit Commission chairman Adam Giambrone, a key council ally of the mayor, said yesterday that the city’s light-rail plans would make a major difference to air quality.

He said the new lines, spanning the city’s inner suburbs, as well as planned expansions of the Yonge and Spadina subways into York Region, can move tens of thousands of new riders out of their cars – provided the funding promised by the provincial government and hoped for from Ottawa arrives. Shovels could be in the ground by 2009, he said.

“Now what has to happen is that money has to flow … because otherwise they remain just lines on the map,” Mr. Giambrone said.

The report cites city data showing that over the past 20 years, traffic in and out of Toronto has risen by 75 per cent, with 67 per cent of trips consisting of a lone driver in a car.

Yesterday’s report uses mathematical modelling to measure the amount and types of pollution caused by cars, plugging the numbers through a Health Canada system to determine how many of the previously estimated 1,700 premature deaths linked to air pollution can be attributed to motor vehicles.

In addition to the estimated 440 premature deaths blamed on tailpipe emissions, the report says traffic is to blame for as many as 1,700 hospitalizations related to air quality, most involving elderly people. The bad air worsens respiratory ailments and heart problems, the study says.

Children, too, feel the effects, with an estimated 1,200 cases of acute bronchitis a year caused by traffic pollution. Children are also more likely to suffer from asthma, and the report blames 68,000 “asthma symptom days” each year in Toronto’s population on tailpipe emissions. It also found 67,000 “acute respiratory system days,” when people suffer from coughing, wheezing and other symptoms.

In addition, the study estimated that pollution from vehicles accounts for 200,000 “restricted activity days” or days spent in bed or cutting back on regular activities because of respiratory problems.

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