The deadly price of dirty air: 5,800 fatalities expected this year

$1B for health care, lost workdays

Sep. 25, 2006. 11:35 AM


More than 5,800 Ontario residents are expected to die prematurely this year because they are breathing dirty air, warns a new report from the Ontario Medical Association.

Breathing pollutant-laden air will cost the province almost $1 billion this year in lost productivity and treatment of smog-related illnesses, the OMA says in the report obtained by the Star.

The Greater Toronto Area was under a smog alert yesterday.

"The impact polluted air is having on the health of Ontarians is dramatically worse than we had initially estimated," said Dr. Greg Flynn, president of the OMA. "We are paying the price for poor air quality with our lives and if we don't take action immediately, the cost will continue to rise significantly."

Science is now available to see the long-term effects of pollution, of how the toxins affect tissue, causing adverse health reactions beyond asthma attacks and breathing difficulties - including contributing to heart attacks and lung cancer.

Smog is a mix of pollutants, made up of mostly ground-level ozone, created from burning gasoline and from other volatile organic compounds found in things like solvents and paints.

The OMA says it now has "clear scientific evidence" of premature deaths for a number of other pollutants such as ozone, sulphur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide and carbon monoxide.

"The cost of inaction is clearly much higher than any price our province could pay to improve air quality," Flynn said.

The report estimates the cost of lost workdays from illnesses related to air pollution - including caregivers' time - at $374 million this year, rising to almost $467 million by 2026.

Health care for air pollution related illnesses, including hospital stays and medications, will cost about $507 million this year, and nearly $702 million by 2026.

The last OMA study, released five years ago, estimated 1,900 deaths that year due to smog-related illnesses.

The sharp increase is a result of two factors: Improved understanding of how pollutants harm the body over time and the fact many more pollutants are now being tracked.

The additional deaths expected this year are also the result of lifetime exposure to dangerous pollutants and the permanent effects on our body, the OMA report notes.

"A physician cannot cure someone whose tissue has accumulated the effects of smog over time," the report says. "All that we can do then is try to manage the illness."

People with asthma suffer greatly for days, even weeks, after a smog alert, said Dr. Mark Greenwald, vice-president of the Asthma Society of Canada, and co-founder of the Asthma Summit happening at York University today. "The asthmatic takes a much longer time to recover," he said. "The trigger is sudden but the effects are longstanding."

Asthmatics say breathing the bad air feels like a plastic bag is over their heads, said Greenwald. "They are afraid and living with this on a daily basis."

Greenwald said the problem of premature deaths caused by air pollution is worse for asthmatics because they don't have good, long-term control of their disease.

A news conference today will outline some of the major findings of the Illness Costs of Air Pollution report, including:

Hospital admissions: More than 16,000 this year will be associated with exposure to air pollution, compared to 9,807 admissions to hospital in 2000.

Trips to emergency departments: Almost 60,000 air-pollution related visits are expected this year, mainly due to cardiovascular and respiratory illness such as asthma. By 2026, the number is seen climbing to 88,000 emergency room visits annually.

Premature deaths: The estimated 5,800 deaths this year is expected to rise to 7,436 by 2015 and 10,061 by 2026. The elderly will be the most vulnerable by far, but infants and children with compromised health conditions are also at risk, the report says.

The report was created using a sophisticated software model developed by the OMA in 2000 to estimate the health effects and economic costs of smog in Ontario.

Informant: Teresa Binstock


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