Who, me? How we can mitigate air pollution and improve our health

We have all seen the pictures of New Delhi recently: smog so thick that you can hardly see a few feet in front of you, let alone the blue sky or the sun. We shudder at these images, thinking of the various ailments that the people living there could suffer as a result. After all, air pollution has been linked to respiratory and cardiovascular diseases, as well as various forms of cancer and allergies. In addition to causing physical illness, it is also associated with psychological distress. Some groups of people, such as children, pregnant women and older folks, are much more susceptible to these harmful effects.  However, air pollution does not have to be as obvious or as extreme as that in Delhi to cause harm. Believe it or not, even Canada – a place we think of as very clean and healthy – experiences air pollution which is caused both by human activity, such as simple daily tasks or, more complex economic activity such as building, manufacturing, farming, and mining.  We know that air pollution negatively impacts our health, but one might not consider its broader repercussions. Poor health translates into missed work, decreased productivity, and impaired concentration. In Canada, it is estimated that the health impacts attributable to air pollution cost $120 billion annually. These costs are attributed to lost productivity, increased health care, decreased quality of life, and premature deaths.  The OECD estimates that between 2015 and 2060 the number of lost working days are projected to increase threefold annually, leading to an increased cost of $3.7 billion from $1.2 billion globally. When combined with the increase in health care costs associated with air pollution, this will represent 1% of global GDP.  When faced with such astronomical numbers, we may think that it is beyond the power of a single person to turn the tide. That is not the case – there are many things that we can do to reduce both our contribution and exposure to air pollution. Collectively, changes by individuals can drive huge influence.  For example, visiting green spaces can decrease our exposure to air pollutants. In 2019, 90% of Canadian households lived within a 10 minute trip to a park or public space and 85% visited them during that year. By walking, biking, or rollerblading to these green spaces, we can also reduce our contribution to air pollution!  In our day-to-day activities we can use less polluting machinery to accomplish our chores, decreasing both our exposure and contribution to air pollution. For example, we can use landscaping machinery that is electric or battery powered, which are a lot less polluting than gas alternatives. In fact, more households are making the greener choice: in 2019 59% of households chose the cleaner version of lawnmowers, and 69% used battery or electric leaf blowers. Don’t be left behind in this growing trend!  The choices we make, both in our everyday lives, as well as in supporting specific public policies, have important effects on how our neighbourhoods, our provinces, and our country addresses air pollution.  ———Daniela is an avid gardener and nature lover and an ambassador with the Sierra Club Ontario’s Breathe Easy project.