If you thought traffic-related air pollution is only a problem in places like Los Angeles or Beijing – and not in Canadian cities – think again.
One in three Canadians live close enough to highways and major urban roads to be exposed to elevated levels of traffic-related air pollution. There is mounting evidence that this pollution causes asthma in children and adults. Diesel exhaust, in particular, causes lung cancer. Roughly 30 per cent of primary schools in Canada also lie within these zones. Every year, 21,000 Canadians die prematurely due to air pollution, nine times the number of deaths from traffic accidents.
Similar conditions exist in U.S. where new rules from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency are requiring air pollution monitors be installed near busy roads in more than 100 metropolitan areas in part to get a better handle on controlling air pollution and its health impact.
Traffic-related air pollution should be high on Canadian’s public health agenda. The four strategies my colleagues and I put forward in our CMAJ commentary , published Oct. 21, will not only reduce exposures to this pollution but can also benefit Canadians in other ways, for example by facilitating more exercise via active commuting (walking and cycling) and by reducing emissions related to climate change. They are:
- Reduce vehicle emissions by removing or retrofitting high-emission vehicles, reducing traffic congestion and encouraging use of electric cars.
- Modify current infrastructure so that heavy truck traffic and daily commuter traffic are separated from bike and walking routes.
- Incorporate better land-use and traffic planning so that schools, daycares and retirement homes are located far away from heavy traffic.
- Encourage alternative commuting behaviours to reduce traffic congestion.
Such measures have proved to be beneficial. For example, In the U.K., a fee was introduced for drivers to enter a “congestion charge zone” in London, and the resulting reduced traffic volume and congestion translated into a gain of 183 years of life per 100,000 residents within the zone over a 10-year period.
It’s time we got serious about traffic-related air pollution. Our lives will benefit.
Michael Brauer is a professor in the School of Population and Public Health at the University of British Columbia Faculty of Medicine.