The air we breathe

It’s been a bit of an adjustment coming back to Canada from Europe, especially after living in a generally left-leaning and social democratic bit of Europe. I went from a city that is trying to bring in hybrid and electric buses, and is creating a charging network to support a ban on non-electric cabs. All this in a country that runs entirely on renewables.

Europe is getting big into electric vehicles and renewable energy. Some of it is that countries like the Netherlands and Denmark are very concerned about sea-level rises — both nations are low-lying and could disappear entirely in the future. Another big part of it is that the EU has ambitious air quality standards for urban areas and people want to have clean air to breathe. Several sections of Edinburgh are failing to meet air quality standards and the introduction of hybrid and electric vehicles is part of the plan to change that.

Cars emit an enormous amount of pollution and harmful particles much of which goes straight into the lungs of people living, walking and working near where people drive. The LA Times reports that people living near freeways:

Suffer higher rates of asthma, heart attacks, strokes, lung cancer and pre-term births. Recent research has added more health risks to the list, including childhood obesity, autism and dementia.

One couple living in housing near a freeway become sick soon after moving in.

Low rent and a location near shops and restaurants are what brought Jeremiah Caleb to an apartment on Beloit Avenue, where a sound wall is all that separates the 405 freeway from sleek new apartments and lofts advertising “good living.”

But life got worse for Jeremiah and his wife Angel soon after moving into that one-bedroom on the Westside of Los Angeles.

The couple began to struggle with bouts of coughing, sneezing and headaches. They kept the windows shut, yet a grimy, black film settled regularly over the furniture, counters and even their skin — a never-ending reminder of the vehicle exhaust and soot they were breathing just 100 feet from 14 lanes of traffic.

“We were constantly sick,” said Caleb, an actor in his 30s. The couple worried enough about dirty air that they put off having children. “We were desperate to leave, but we felt stuck. We just couldn’t afford it.”

It is often the poorest people with the fewest choices who end up in this type of housing. Those who can afford it live further from pollution.

Still everyone in the city is impacted by the particles emitted on massive highways running throughout the city and from cars moving around on smaller roads. After Ontario phased out coal power plants Toronto saw a dramatic reduction in smog.

Fifty-three to zero: this is the number of smog days in Ontario in 2005 compared with the number in 2014. Ontario had the better part of two full months of smog days in 2005, and none in 2014. It is undeniable that Ontario has seen pollution reduction and an improvement in air quality since phasing out coal-fired power plants — and that families have felt these health and environmental benefits across Ontario.

Green house gases and climate change are important but we forget about the importance of clean air and smog free days. There are enormous impacts on quality of life and health. Respiratory illness and cancer rates can be powerful motivators for change.


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