B.C. Air Quality

Air Quality and Your Health

kids on bikesWe come in contact with many kinds of air pollutants every day. They are being released in our neighbourhoods, our backyards, inside our homes, and are finding their way into our lungs. Outdoor pollutants seep into houses, even through closed doors and windows. Air pollution can also cover large areas, as with smoke from a forest fire, or ground-level ozone in the Lower Fraser Valley. Air pollution can be dangerous even when you can't see or smell it, such as carbon monoxide.

Outdoor air pollution now takes a greater toll on human life in B.C. than HIV/AIDS. Health effects from air pollution can last for a short while (e.g., coughing) or become chronic (e.g., heart and lung disease). Health problems increase when we are exposed to air pollution for a long time (exposure), and when we breathe in a lot of it (concentration).

An August 2008 study on air pollution by the Canadian Medical Association (CMA), entitled No Breathing Room: National Illness Costs of Pollution, said that in 2008 alone, up to 21,000 Canadians would die from air pollution — specifically, from ground-level ozone and particulate matter. Most deaths would be the result of long-term exposure to air pollution. However, almost 3,000 would be the result of acute, short-term exposure.

With respect to British Columbia, the CMA report says that, in 2008, air pollution would cause:

  • 306 acute premature deaths;
  • 1,158 hospital admissions;
  • 8,763 emergency department visits;
  • 2,526,900 minor illnesses; and
  • 62,112 doctor's office visits.

Many B.C. communities have periods of unacceptable air quality — with adverse effects on human health, the environment and visibility. In the North and the Interior, particulate matter pollution from industrial and domestic sources — especially wood smoke — is the crucial air quality issue. Ground-level ozone from transportation sources is the major air pollution problem in the Lower Mainland, and particulate matter to a lesser degree.

Even areas that meet the national standard of “good” air quality may not be good enough. Scientists have found that low levels of particulate matter in the air can heighten the risk of lung and heart disease. B.C.’s population is growing, especially in the Greater Vancouver area. More people will mean more motor vehicles and emissions, and increased pollution from other human activities.

The 2009 British Columbia Air Quality and Health Benefits Report (contracted by the Ministries of Environment, and Healthy Living and Sport) found that improving air quality in the province would result in large health benefits for B.C. residents. The report looked at the air quality improvements resulting from implementing the Air Action Plan and the Climate Action Plan in British Columbia. It concluded that improving air quality by implementing these plans would avoid 70 premature deaths per year by 2020, as well as a large number of illnesses.

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