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Clean-air Campaign Fights Rising Air Pollution

Source: Globe and Mail Update
Monday, June 4th, 2001

When commuters stepped off the train at Toronto's downtown Union Station Monday morning, they got an unexpected welcome from a provincial minister and a slew of supporters. The commuters weren't athletes coming home from a successful tournament. They weren't dignitaries. They weren't really special in any way. All they did was take the train to work. But for environmental groups such as Ontario's Pollution Probe, which has supported clean-air campaigns for nearly a decade, those commuters are saviours. With millions of illnesses, and thousands of deaths and hospital visits in Ontario every year due to smog, the group says that not only is commuting good for the environment, it literally saves lives.

In Ontario last year, there were about 1,900 premature deaths due to smog, along with another 9,800 hospital admissions and 47 million minor illnesses, such as asthma attacks, allergic reactions and throat problems. The vast majority of the air pollution that causes those illnesses comes from cars. The Ontario Medical Association, which compiled those figures, also says that by 2015, the number of premature deaths due to smog will rise to 2,600; hospital admissions will number 13,000; emergency room visits will be 18,000; and minor illnesses will increase to 53 million. That's why Pollution Probe officials and provincial Environment Minister Elizabeth Witmer say they were at Union Station early in the morning, congratulating commuters as they stepped onto the platform to make their way toward the subway station or nearby office buildings.The greetings heralded the official launch of Pollution Probe's month-long anti-smog campaign. The "Clean Air" campaign runs throughout June, and gets mid- to large-sized companies to compete for the most tonnes of pollution prevented. Companies that sign up are supposed to encourage employees to commute by any other means than driving. Although bus riding and biking are obvious options, some participants have been more ambitious in the past, says Patty Chilton, a director at Pollution Probe. Last year, a couple lawyers canoed to the Harbour and then carried their canoe through the streets to their office, she says. Pollution Probe mathematically assigns a number to different means of transportation that employees use, and then converts it into the tonnes of pollution saved. Ms. Chilton says employees saved a total of 380 tonnes of pollution last year - including carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide and other pollutants, She hopes to get more companies involved each year, especially considering the costs associated with air pollution.

Air pollution adds more than $1-billion annually to the health-care system and to employers and employees because of lost work days, the medical association says. It also estimates the value of "pain and suffering, and loss of life," due to smog is another $10-billion, which will rise to about $12-billion in 2015. Pollution Probe says it has recently gained support from the federal government, too. The federal Liberals are apparently going to add to the Clean Air effort by announcing about $145-million in new environmental spending over the next two weeks. Some of the money will go toward improving water quality, energy efficiency and reducing smog across the country.

Environment Minister David Anderson and National Resources Minister Ralph Goodale say they are also planning to announce $50-million to reduce smog at a "smog summit" June 11 in Toronto. Those announcements are to coincide with this year's national Environment Week, which runs until Saturday, and with World Environment Day, held on Tueday.

But John Wellner, a director at Pollution Probe who follows the statistical rate of deaths from smog in the province, says a quicker local solution would be to lower the cost of bus passes so that commuters are attracted away from their cars. With current prices, it costs more than $1,100 a year to buy a transit pass in Toronto. That compares with the estimated $8,900 a year that it costs to own and operate a car, according to the Canadian Automobile Association, which included the cost of gas, insurance and parking in its calculations. But Mr. Wellner says there are thousands of more people who will not abandon their cars until public transit is even cheaper, faster and more comfortable. "Governments have to increase their financial interest in public transit," he said.

With reports from Canadian Press