It’s early July in Canada, and the country’s early record wildfire season has already choked, irritated and worsened the health of millions of people.
On Wednesday, a group of doctors and environmental groups warned that while air pollution is the greatest environmental threat to health in Canada, it does not end when the smoke clears.
In a petition to Canada's Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development dated June 5, Canadian Physicians for the Environment and Friends of the Earth called for an investigation into how the federal government is curbing toxic emissions from heavy-duty trucks.
“This is not about climate change. This is about human health,” said Lynda Collins, a lawyer with Ecojustice who is representing the two groups.
“We're asking the federal government to get involved in cleaning up one of the most harmful forms of air pollution.”
Collins says new federal standards to limit pollution from big trucks are reasonable, but that older heavy trucks built before 2007 are still entitled to emit roughly 10 times the particulate pollution than newer models.
She says the federal loophole means thousands of Canadians living in busy urban corridors are getting unnecessarily exposed to noxious emissions, including nitrous oxide (NOx), sulphur dioxide (SOx) and particulates.
The growing costs of air pollution
Government studies have found air pollution leads to 15,300 premature deaths in Canada every year, “greater than the number of Canadians who died from COVID in 2020,” the two groups note in their petition to the commissioner.
“The new standards are pretty darn good. And they will be super helpful for our grandchildren. But thousands and thousands of people are going to die between now and then,” said Collins. “That's totally unacceptable. Like you have got to do something in the interim.”
A 2019 report from the University of Toronto found one-third of Canadians live within 250 metres of a major road, leaving them exposed to traffic emissions. After Ontario, the study found B.C. residents lived closer to major roads than residents of any other province.
Traffic-related pollution near roadways has been linked to a number of diseases, including asthma, cardiovascular disease, reduced lung function or implanted development in children, and childhood leukemia.
In B.C., research into the impacts of traffic pollution has found the more air pollution and less green space a child is exposed to, the more likely they will develop attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Another study looking at the same cohort of nearly 30,000 Metro Vancouver children found those exposed to traffic pollution were less likely to meet key developmental milestones, including emotional maturity, language skills and even general knowledge.
And a study carried out at Vancouver General Hospital and published earlier this year found causal evidence that exposure to diluted diesel exhaust leads to declines in cognitive function.
Dr. Mili Roy, a practicing ophthalmologist in Oakville, Ont., said she is backing the petition to the commissioner because of the clear impacts on human health. In her own practice, the eye doctor says she sees patients with external eye irritation and allergies flair up when exhaust emissions combine with wildfire smoke.
“Air quality is such an important determinant of human health, and it's one that's increasingly being degraded,” said Roy. “When our air is polluted, we're literally breathing in toxins.”
The petition points to a Health Canada study that found the 2015 health burden of traffic-related air pollution was estimated at $9.5 billion, with heavy-duty vehicles contributing to 63 per cent of premature deaths.
End grandfathered loophole for old trucks, says petition
The petition to the commissioner — an independent auditor of federal climate and environmental policy — calls on the federal government to establish a national near-road air quality monitoring network. It also asks the government to launch an investment stream to help municipalities create low-emission corridors like those that prohibit or impose fees for high-polluting vehicles across hundreds of cities in Europe and Asia.
“It literally saves lives. It's a really effective mechanism,” Collins said.
That could be done by only allowing newer, more efficient trucks to transit routes in densely populated areas. But Collins said one of the most important loopholes the federal government needs to close is on old heavy-duty vehicles. Provide tax incentives and grants to industry, and they will be able to retrofit old, heavy-polluting trucks, the petition said.
“Trucks are capital assets, so obviously, we understand people aren't going to just stop using their trucks and buy new ones with better emissions,” said Collins.
She added: “Obviously, we need to decarbonize trucking. That's indisputable. The question is, how much suffering are we going to allow in the interim?”
'The physicians are correct'
Dave Earle, president and CEO of the British Columbia Trucking Association, said he agrees old trucks pose a big problem for emissions. But the challenge, he says, is a lot bigger than some people realize.
According to Earle, it goes back to a failed U.S. policy under former President George W. Bush that pushed for emission controls without adequate technology in place.
“All the emission controls that were put on to address NOx, SOx and particulate didn't work,” he said. “We saw trucks going down for literally 20 to 30 days a year. They'd be out of service because of these emission controls. And they burned between five and 12 per cent more fuel.”
Earle said that led to a trucking culture where operators “delete” their engines — essentially removing emission controls.
“There are entire shops that are set up to delete heavy vehicles,” he said. “It's a selling point. So the physicians are correct in that, yeah, this is a real problem.”
Get them off the road, says industry head
Where Earle disagrees is what should be done to reign in the all the old heavy-polluting vehicles.
He says the emissions control technology required to filter emissions on old trucks burn more fuel, creating more carbon pollution. At the same time, it costs between $10,000 and $30,000 to fix the vehicles, and global manufacturing capacity is woefully insufficient, said the industry head.
“Our best guess is about half the fleet is deleted,” he said of the situation in Canada. “We're talking hundreds of thousands of vehicles.”
“It's a waste of time and energy. We need to get these vehicles off the road. Period. Like they need to go away.”
Earle says a more realistic path would be to increase turnover of current vehicles. In the near-term, that would mean buying new internal combustion engine trucks — Earle says the average 2020 model truck is 20 to 30 per cent more fuel efficient than one built in 2011.
Within the next five years, companies are expected to increasingly turn to electric trucks, especially for urban shipping, Earle says. But until then, a lot more can be done.
“We've got a lot of work to do locally, and we can do it. It's just going to take more time than anybody wants,” he said.