Straight Talk About Clean Air

The federal Conservatives want to change the environmental focus from a climate change strategy to a clean air strategy. I'm with Mr. Harper on this one, if he really means it.

By Ted Mitchell
Published October 20, 2006

The editor asked me to write something about the upcoming municipal election, but I find the subject far too depressing.

Instead, I want to talk about clean air. This is an issue which transcends levels of government but really has the most relevance at the municipal level. As we start to ask more questions about air pollution, it becomes clearer that the isolated local effects that used to be ignored by averaging them out are, in fact, very important.

Local variations in levels of air pollutants are extreme. My friend Denis Corr from Clean Air Hamilton has completed a preliminary study on mobile monitoring of air quality [PDF link]. The spikes in pollutants seen near sources such as cars idling at red lights and school pick up zones will shock you.

The federal Conservatives want to change the environmental focus from a climate change strategy to a clean air strategy. I'm with Mr. Harper on this one, if he really means it.

Climate change, like nuclear disarmament, is a serious topic. But such subjects are really difficult to imagine for the average person. It is hard to get worked up about something so indirectly linked to your own experiences, which might occur in the distant future and/or might not even affect you, however horrible it might be for others.

On the other hand, smog is a hazy and present danger. The presence of poor air quality and its effects are frequently available for our observation.

Now, perhaps this issue is less important than climate change, and I am no fan of simplifying complex, interconnected issues down to a single, media-friendly one. But which issue is more likely to appeal to the general public? Which issue more clearly spells out the link between our actions and the consequences of them?

Clean air.

Now if anyone is serious about air pollution, they would relegate "incentives" as politically correct but essentially ineffective. To get results, the gloves have to come off. I offer three suggestions.

1. Get rid of single occupancy commuting.

From an energy wasting standpoint, nothing rivals this. You may have heard "energy efficiency starts at home", but forget that: it starts with how you use your vehicle. Cars are generally designed for five passengers, and can carry at least three comfortably, even in compact four cylinder cars.

The added benefits: saving fuel, less need for roads, less road congestion, more compact (less costly) residential areas, and a more active population with walkable destinations.

While we're on the subject of vehicles, how about buying one that best matches your actual needs, instead of your perceived ones. Nobody needs an SUV, and exceedingly few people need a truck.

The Honda Civic, built in Canada, averages 5.6 l/100 km (42 mpg), seats five normal-sized adults comfortably and is top rated in emissions, reliability and safety. It has 140 hp and a top speed of over 200 km/h. This is obviously not enough for most people. More power! More size! More status! Muhahahahahaha...

2. Clean up dirty engines.

Diesel engines are now available with particulate filters that burn as cleanly as gasoline. No small feat given that currently, diesel particulate emissions are at least ten times as high as those from gasoline.

Such technology needs to be legally mandated, and a tough program implemented for retrofitting existing engines, whether they are used on or off-road. Also, in the 21st century, we do not need the rank pollution from two-stroke engines or their horrible noise. Stop making them, and ban their use in cities.

3. Wood burning fireplaces have to go.

The burning of wood, although nearly CO2 neutral, is an air pollution nightmare.

Winter smog is a fairly new phenomenon, one that is highly correlated with a recent increase in wood burning, especially in eastern Ontario and Quebec. Although the wood fire is perhaps a cultural sacred in Canada, consider this quote from Environment Canada:

Residential wood combustion fulfills 1 percent of the energy demand but is responsible of 29 percent of the fine particulates (PM2.5) and 48 percent of the polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) emitted by all the Canadian sources put together.

Both PM and PAHs are linked to cancer, respiratory problems and cardiovascular death.

For the doubters, try this: the next time you are in a house that is burning wood, take a minute, go outside, and stand downwind of the chimney for one minute. Pleasant?

Improving air quality does not start with scapegoating local industry. It does not mean lobbying the US Midwest to stop using coal fired power. It starts with thinking about how your own actions affect your health and that of your neighbour.

You, and your local politicians, have some work to do.

Ted Mitchell is a Hamilton resident, emergency physician and sometimes agitator who recently completed a BEng at McMaster University. He is fascinated by aspects of our culture that are harmful, but avoid serious public discussion.


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By seancb (registered) - website | Posted October 30, 2006 at 12:57:03

I think that, above and beyond #2 and #3, we should all take a jab at #1b: ELIMINATE LEAFBLOWERS AND LAWNMOWERS. This is something that everyone can do right now. It's not limited to people with dirty engines and fireplaces. It's easy, and the only side effects will be longer grass and more free time every weekend! The benefits are outstanding too. An hour of running one of these small engines is like driving 100-200 miles in a car depending on the car, and who you talk to (

I wish everyone would stop putting my drinking water on their lawns so that it will grow, only to dump a bunch of gasoline "down the drain" in order to keep it short. It's so twisted...

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By RUSTY (registered) - website | Posted October 31, 2006 at 09:41:25

Good points. Someone once told me it costs up to $150 a week to run a car. Yet we somehow associate driving with 'freedom'...? Or else we see driving as our 'right'...

Surely true freedom is having more control over your money - more say as to what you spend it on. I made this 'lifestyle assessment' a few months ago and I realised that, if I had the choice, I would not choose to spend my money on driving and nice furniture and grass seed for my lawn. If I had the choice, I realised I would buy myself more time with my family while they are still young and healthy and in their 'prime'

So I moved to Toronto and started working 4 days a week. I've told people this and they've said 'Oh well - that's great if you can afford it'. That's a cop out. You can always find a way. Our Toronto house in less than half the size of our Dundas one - there is always a way.

People think they do not have a choice in these matters but in reality we have more choice than we realise.



PS Ry - I just ordered that book :)

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By seancb (registered) - website | Posted November 01, 2006 at 12:49:11

Excellent points. That book sounds great. I used to have a car that I paid 380/mth payment plus 180/mth insurance. I paid more for my car than I did for rent. WHen I hit a deer, requested a write-off. I will never buy another, that's for sure. I cringe when people talk about car shopping. It pains me to even hear about it.

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By Wondering (anonymous) | Posted November 06, 2006 at 13:21:27

I dont's have time to read the EnvCan report on wood smoke right now so I'm hoping that someone who has can answer...
What about EPA or CARB certified woodstoves? Are they any better?
I've lived in the north where the feds paid folks to replace oil furnaces with wood in the 1970's and where, now, there are "no burn" days due to smog and people are forced to use very expensive deisel generated electric heat instead.
I love wood heat and the glow from a fire but agree it can have a disasterous effect. I'm kinda hoping to hear the better is okay.
P.S. I've wondered for years why you can still buy old super-polluting very inefficient woodstove designs in Canada.

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By Ted Mitchell (registered) | Posted November 06, 2006 at 22:40:17

Dear Wondering, excellent questions.

EPA certified stoves are roughly 5 times cleaner, i.e. less than 20% of the particulate matter (smoke) out the chimney. Check out Evironment Canada for more info, links from Clean Air Hamilton are here:

That is quite an improvement, but in my opinion, it is not clean enough for frequent use in the city. Perfect however for a country home with lots of wood on site and no close neighbours.

Pellet stoves are a factor of 5 again cleaner than EPA wood stoves and likely not a big problem in the city.

As for the P.S., that is puzzling isn't it? The feds seem to have downloaded regulatory responsibility to municipalities, and most have completely ignored the problem. My best sources indicate it will take a couple of years just to get Canada to adopt the US EPA standards which have been in effect there since 1990.

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By Wondering (again) (anonymous) | Posted November 07, 2006 at 09:00:50

Dear Ted
Thanks so much for your prompt response.

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