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Pollution more deadly than smoking, AIDS and war, report says

Last Updated Oct 20, 2017 at 2:33 pm EST

A man wears an air pollution mask in downtown Turin, Italy, on Oct. 20, 2017. Air pollution, fuelled by an unusually long dry spell, became a problem in Northern Italy after the concentration of PM10 particles jumped to 114mcg/cm, more than double the 50mcg/cm limit. ANSA/The Associated Press/Alessandro Di Marco

Pollution kills more people around the world than war and infectious diseases, says a new report — proof, environmental lobbyists say, of why Canada needs enforceable national air quality standards.

The Lancet medical journal study out Friday suggests at least nine million people died around the globe in 2015 because of pollution. Almost half of those deaths occurred in India and China, nine in 10 were in low and middle-income countries, and those most affected came from marginalized and poor communities, the report found.

Air, soil and water pollution and exposure to toxic chemicals killed three times more people than AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis combined and 15 times more people than war and violence, it concludes.

While Canada has one of the lower rates of pollution-related deaths compared with places like India and Somalia, it’s also one of the few developed nations that doesn’t have enforceable, legally binding national standards for air quality, said Environmental Defence program manager Muhannad Malas.

“What we have in Canada is basically guidelines,” Malas said.

Canada has ambient air quality standards under the Environmental Protection Act that set certain objectives for ozone, sulphur dioxide and fine particulate matter, but they are only voluntary. They also don’t include several of the most troublesome pollutants, including cadmium and benzene, he added.

Benzene is a carcinogen which the World Health Organization says has no safe level of exposure for humans. It is also one of the chemicals which leaked without warning to residents in Sarnia’s “Chemical Valley” in a 2014 spill from the Plains Midstream Canada chemical plant.

Chemical Valley — a 40-square kilometre region in Sarnia which is home to more than five dozen chemical plants and oil refineries — was singled out in the Lancet report as an “environmental injustice” for First Nations in the area.

The Lancet report also notes an environmental injustice for First Nations in northern Alberta due to pollution from the oilsands.

A joint investigation by the Toronto Star, Global News and journalism students at Ryerson and Concordia universities this month found more than 500 incidents in the Chemical Valley in 2014 and 2015, but only one public warning. Four charges for pollution-related accidents have been laid by the provincial government since 2013, the investigation found.

Malas said provincial governments have some laws in place, but they are not uniform. A national standard that can be — and is — enforced is what’s necessary, he argued.

“What we’re asking for in this case is national enforceable standards that are at least on par with (Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development) standards.”

Environment Minister Catherine McKenna has committed to updating the Canadian Environmental Protection Act next year and Malas said that is the perfect vehicle and the perfect time to finally step up and put strict limits on air pollution and exposure to toxic chemicals to protect Canadians.

A parliamentary committee studied the issue in 2016, and last spring made more than 80 recommendations to amend the act including developing national enforceable standards for air and drinking water quality, in concert with the provinces.

McKenna said recently she is studying the recommendations and intends to introduce legislation by June 2018.