Treating the climate with coal phase-out

*Reprinted with the permission of National Observer

Canada, the UK and partners announced a global alliance to phase-out coal power at COP23 in Bonn, Germany. It was an honour to speak on behalf of the health community at the launch, as coal-power phase-out is a key recommendation of the 2017 Lancet Countdown Report and the Countdown’s associated UK brief, as well as the Canadian Brief which I co-authored on behalf of the Canadian Public Health Association.

The Lancet tells us that climate change is the biggest global health threat of the 21st century…and that tackling climate change could be the greatest global health opportunity of the 21st century.

Phasing out coal is about reducing the 44 per cent of global carbon dioxide emissions due to coal—and the trauma, displacement and heat-related deaths associated with severe weather events due to climate change. It’s about a future with less burns and cough-inducing smoke clouds from wildfires, less conflict and migration, and less undernourished children.

Phasing out coal is also about seeing less kids with asthma puffers from air pollution—less costly ER visits for asthma, less time off school and work. It’s about less morbidity and deaths from the long-term health impacts of coal-related air pollution—cancer, cardiovascular disease, stroke, lower respiratory infection. It’s about less neurodevelopmental problems from mercury, and less polluted water and habitat loss from coal extraction.

Health professionals worldwide are beginning to treat climate change with coal phase-out.In Canada, organizations such as the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment and the Canadian Public Health Association have been key contributors to coal phase-out commitments in Ontario, Alberta and Canada-wide.

Earlier at COP23, the World Health Organization Director General, Dr Tedros Adhanom, repeated his commitments to make action for a healthy climate one of the four priorities of his presidency, and met with myself and other members of the Global Climate and Health Alliance to discuss collaboration on both adaptation and mitigation work in service of health.

At the Global Climate and Health Alliance Summit, held in association with the World Health Organization, we spoke with health professionals from across the world, including medical students, to teach them what advocacy techniques work and who they need to partner with in order to support coal phase-out in their home countries. With income being a major social determinant of health, health professionals believe that active support of workers is key to a just and healthy transition.

The health professions are late to the climate fight, but we learn fast, we don’t need a lot of sleep and we’re used to dealing with crisis.

As we move forwards towards actioning the coal phase-out in Canada and beyond, health professionals will be looking to see as much coal as possible replaced with renewables as opposed to natural gas. An increasing proportion of natural gas in Canada is being produced via hydraulic fracturing—for which increasing studies are demonstrating negative impacts. One assessment of the peer-reviewed literature on the impacts of hydraulic fracturing found that 84 per cent of studies on public health, 69 per cent of studies on water and 85 per cent of studies on air pollution found concerning findings. A direct transition to healthy, low-carbon energy should be our goal.

As an Emergency doctor I know what it’s like to act too slowly and to have patients die. The first time a child died under my care was on a pediatric malnutrition project in the Horn of Africa. It was one of the worst moments of my life. I also know what it’s like to act quickly, to do the right thing, and to pull someone from the spiral back to where we can thrive.

The health professionals of the world are applying the skills they’ve learned from treating people—to work to resuscitating the planet.

COP23 has seen new initiatives, new alliances, and new skills created. In partnership with the global health community and our decision-makers, I’m looking forward to treating the climate with coal phase-out and moving forward to a healthier planet.

Op-Ed By Dr. Courtney Howard, CAPE President, Dec. 3 2017

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Climate Change Health Impacts Demand Urgent Action

“The human symptoms of climate change are unequivocal and potentially irreversible – affecting the health of populations around the world, today. Whilst these effects will disproportionately impact the most vulnerable in society, every community will be affected.”

This is one of the conclusions expressed in the new report, The Lancet Countdown: Tracking Progress on Health and Climate Change, that was released on October 31, 2017.  Produced by the prestigious medical journal, The Lancet, with an interdisciplinary team of researchers from 24 academic institutions and inter-governmental organizations, the new report identifies 31 indicators that can be used to measure the impact, adaptation, mitigation, economics, and politics of climate change on a global scale.

The Countdown notes that global inaction to mitigate climate change is moving us towards a 2.6°C to 4.8°C increase in the global temperature by the end of the century – “a level which would be disastrous to health even with maximal adaptation efforts”.  It states that “adaptation has limits” and that action is needed to “prevent the potentially irreversible effects of climate change.”

The message delivered by the Countdown is urgent and dire, but not without hope.  It also reports that “Whilst progress has historically been slow, the last five years have seen an accelerated response, and the transition to low-carbon electricity generation now appears inevitable.”

In Canada, the Countdown was released along with The Lancet Briefing for Canadian Policymakers,  authored by CAPE President-Elect, Dr. Courtney Howard, the Canadian Public Health Association (CPHA), and the Lancet Countdown team. The policy brief examines several Countdown indicators that are particularly relevant to Canada.  For example, it reports that annual weather-related disasters in Canada have increased by 44% from 1994-2000 to 2000-2013, and notes that these events have affected hundreds of thousands of Canadians, if not more.

Canadians Impacted by Extreme Weather

  • 2013, Calgary flood – 100,000 people affected
  • 2014, Manitoba flood – 6,900 people affected
  • 2014, Yellowknife, Northwest Territories wildfires – poor air quality from smoke
  • 2015, La Ronge, Saskatchewan wildfires – 13,000 evacuated
  • 2016, Fort McMurray, Alberta wildfires – 88,000 people evacuated
  • 2017, Williams Lake, British Columbia wildfires – 24,000 people evacuated
  • 2017, Calgary and Vancouver – poor air quality from wildfire smoke

The policy brief reports that to meet the Paris Agreement, and keep global temperatures from exceeding a 2°C increase, global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions must be reduced to nearly zero by 2050.  This will require halving emissions every decade between now and then.

Several global policy priorities, which have the potential to produce immediate health benefits as well as long-term climate benefits, are discussed in the policy brief with Canadian data.  These include:

  • the need to replace coal-fired power plants with low to zero emitting sources by 2030;
  • the need to dramatically reduce the use of private motorized vehicles with public transit use, active modes of transportation, and telecommuting; and
  • the need to increase low-meat and plant-rich diets.

For more information, read the Lancet Briefing for Canadian Policymakers and see the CBC interview with CAPE President-Elect Dr. Courtney Howard.

Prepared by Kim Perrotta, Executive Director, CAPE, November 3, 2017

Other Blogs on this topic:

https://physiciansfortheenvironment.wordpress.com/2017/06/06/a-national-cycling-strategy-a-triple-win-for-public-health/

https://physiciansfortheenvironment.wordpress.com/2017/03/08/coal-plants-have-a-significant-impact-on-air-quality-and-health-incomplete-facts-dont-change-the-truth/

https://physiciansfortheenvironment.wordpress.com/2017/01/18/ontarios-coal-plant-phase-out-produced-many-health-and-environmental-benefits/

Bloor Street West Bike Lane shows need for National Active Transportation Strategy

Last week, Toronto’s Public Works and Infrastructure Committee decided to maintain the Bloor Street West Bike Lane.  The bike lane was installed on Bloor Street from Shaw Street to Avenue Road as a pilot project for one year.  It was a watershed moment for bike lanes in Toronto because Bloor Street is one of the busiest streets in the city.  But the debate also exemplifies the desperate need for evidence-based direction from the federal government.

Before the installation of the Bloor Street West Bike Lane, this stretch of road was used by approximately 24,000 vehicles and 3,300 cyclists per each weekday, and recorded, on average, 22 collisions involving cyclists each year.  After the installation of the bike lane, cycling increased by 49% to 5,220 cyclists per week day, while the number of vehicle/cyclist conflicts was decreased by 61% (Toronto 2017).

City staff recommended maintaining the Bloor West Bike Lane on the basis of several evaluation studies which found that: a significant number of drivers, cyclists, and pedestrians felt the road was safer with the bike lane; driving time along this stretch increased by only 2 to 4 minutes respectively during peak times; customer spending increased among local businesses; and strong support for the bike lane was expressed by cyclists, pedestrians, local residents, and drivers who ride a bicycle on occasion (Toronto, 2017).

Sixty people and organizations were registered for deputations at this Committee meeting. Despite the positive results from the evaluation studies and the passion of the testimonies, two of the six councillors still voted against maintaining the Bloor West Bike Lane.  Councillor Holyday and Councillor Mammoliti were fixated on the cost of installing the bike lanes, the risk of slowing vehicular traffic, and the loss of parking spots.  It was frustrating and disheartening.

Bike lanes reduce injuries and deaths among cyclists.  They increase levels of physical activity, which reduces chronic diseases, deaths from cardiovascular disease and cancer, and health care costs.  Bikes emit no air pollutants and no greenhouse gases.  Bike lanes make jobs, services, and recreational opportunities more accessible to people who cannot drive and to those who cannot afford their own vehicles.  With so many health, environmental, and social benefits, why is it so difficult to get bike lanes installed?

We need to think  about bike lanes differently.  We have to think of them like sidewalks; essential infrastructure that protect people from vehicles while fostering healthy lifestyles.  We have to think of them like soccer fields and hockey arenas; community assets that promote physical activity and social cohesion.  We have to think of them like parks and greenspace; a land use use of land that improves air quality, mitigates climate change, and promotes mental health.

There is a role for the federal government to engage in this debate.  Chronic diseases cost Canada hundreds of billions of dollars each year in lost-time and health care costs.  Bike lanes are a public health priority; one that could be fostered and promoted with a national strategy that includes targets, design criteria, and policies.  Citizens need help getting municipal councillors on side.  The federal government needs to get health care costs under control.  It is time for a National Active Transportation Strategy.

Prepared by Kim Perrotta MHSc, Executive Director, CAPE, October 20, 2017

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Clear Evidence: Neonics are undermining Essential Ecosystems

Governments around the world must ban neonic pesticides without delay.  This is the message of the Task Force on Systemic Pesticides (TFSP) which released the second edition of the report, Worldwide Integrated Assessment of the Effects of Systemic Pesticides on Biodiversity and Ecosystems in mid-September.

The new report, which captures more than 500 scientific studies published since the first TFSP report was published in 2014, finds deeper and broader evidence of harm to ecoystems around the world due to neonic pesticides  It reinforces the conclusions of the earlier report: neonics, and the closely related pesticide fipronil, represent a major threat to biodiversity and ecosystem services.

Neonic pesticides are systemic pesticides that become absorbed into all of the tissues of a plant; the stem, leaves, flowers, and pollen.  Introduced in the early 1990s, neonics are the most widely used insecticides in the world today.  The new TFSP report confirms that chronic exposure to very low levels of neonic pesticides increases the death rates of living organisms.

The report documents a broad array of harmful impacts on bees including reduced rates of reproduction and bee colony growth.  It provides greater evidence that systemic pesticides harm a number of beneficial animals including worms that help recycle nutrients in the soil, aquatic insects that recycle nutrients in water systems, insects that prey on crop pests, insects that pollinate plants, common birds, and bats.  In other words, these pesticides are undermining the ecosystems upon which all life is dependent.

Eight different neonic products are registered for use in Canada.  In November 2016, Health Canada’s Pest Management Regulatory Agency (PMRA) proposed phasing out the use of one of the eight – imacloprid – over a three to five year period.  It has also initiated special reviews on two of the other neonics that are widely used in agriculture – clothianidin and thiamethoxam.

The European Union imposed a moratorium on several neonic pesticides in 2013. In July 2015, Ontario became the first jurisdiction in North America to limit the use of neonics for agricultural purposes.   This year, France passed a new law to ban all agricultural uses of neonic pesticides starting in September 2018.  Let the Federal Minister of Health know that she should accelerate the phase-out of imacloprid and all other neonic pesticides that are registered for use in Canada at: Ginette.PetitpasTaylor@parl.gc.ca.

 Prepared by Kim Perrotta, MHSc, Executive Director, CAPE

Other Blogs on this topic:

https://physiciansfortheenvironment.wordpress.com/2017/02/23/neonics-its-bigger-than-the-bees/

https://physiciansfortheenvironment.wordpress.com/2016/01/14/quebec-moves-to-ban-neonics-and-other-agricultural-pesticides/

 

A National Active Transportation Strategy can Reduce Chronic Diseases & Health Care Costs

Eight national health organizations have sent a letter to the Federal Minister of Health asking her to invest in the development of a National Active Transportation StrategySignatories to the joint letter include Heart & Stroke, Diabetes Canada, Canadian Cancer Society, The Canadian Lung Association, Asthma Canada, the Alzheimer Society of Canada, Upstream, and CAPE.

The joint letter outlines a powerful public health and financial case for active transportation. Chronic diseases consume 67 per cent of the health care budget in Canada. These diseases cost Canadians $190 billion annually: about $65 billion in treatment and $135 billion in lost productivity.  Further, chronic disease rates are increasing rapidly, by about 14 per cent a year.  As a result, health care costs threaten to overwhelm provincial budgets across the country.

Fortunately, active transportation can help stem the tide. Physical activity reduces the risk of over 25 chronic health conditions, including coronary heart disease, stroke, hypertension, breast cancer, colon cancer, Type 2 diabetes, and osteoporosis.  It also benefits mental health and arthritis.  Unfortunately, fewer than one in five Canadian adults get the 150 minutes of physical activity needed to achieve health benefits and fewer than one in 10 Canadian children get the 60 minutes a day of physical activity needed for healthy growth and development.  Changes to the built environment and other measures can increase physical activity, significantly reducing chronic diseases and their costs. One study found that the risk of premature death from all causes can be decreased by 28 per cent among people who cycle three hours per week and by 22 per cent among people who walk 29 minutes per day, seven days a week.

Increased walking and cycling can also reduce air pollution and its associated health impacts by replacing short car trips.  Investments in active transportation and public transit can also increase access to jobs, services, and recreational opportunities among those who are unable to drive or cannot afford a car.  Changes such as speed reductions, separated bike lanes, and improved pedestrian crossings can also significantly reduce vehicle-related injuries and deaths among pedestrians and cyclists while also encouraging greater levels of physical activity.

A national alliance of active transportation organizations, including Green Communities Canada (Canada Walks), Canada Bikes, and the National ASRTS Working Group, have offered to lead the development of a National Active Transportation Strategy. This coalition would identify infrastructure funding and policies, design standards to be implemented, and support on-going partnerships and community action.

While the Federal Government has announced significant investments in public transit, green infrastructure, and transportation systems, without a National Active Transportation Strategy, we fear that we will miss the opportunity to maximize the health benefits that could result from these federal investments.

Let your Federal Member of Parliament know that you support the development of a National Active Transportation Strategy by emailing your MP today (Federal MP contact list).

Link to English and French versions of the Letter.

Prepared by Kim Perrotta, Executive Director, CAPE

CAPE helps take legal action against Minister McKenna over Volkswagen scandal

CAPE and Environmental Defence, with legal support from Ecojustice, are taking legal action against Federal Environment Minister McKenna, to force the federal government into investigating and punishing Volkswagen for their illegal importation and sales of emissions-cheating diesel vehicles in Canada.

In 2015, approximately 105,000 Volkswagen vehicles were sold in Canada that were capable of emitting up to 35 times the legal level of nitrogen oxides (NOx). The vehicles which did not comply with Canada’s emission standards were imported into the country with illegal software that would prevent emission testing devices from identifying the problem. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency prosecuted Volkswagen, and the company agreed to pay a $15 billion settlement. In the same period of time, Canada has failed to conclude their investigation and no punitive measures have yet been taken.

“Volkswagen has already admitted that it perpetuated fraud against the public and put human health at risk by selling emissions-cheating vehicles,” said Amir Attaran, lawyer with Ecojustice’s law clinic at the University of Ottawa. “In taking zero enforcement action and levying no fines as other countries have, the Canadian government is leaving billions of dollars on the table – money that it could use to clean the environment.”

In 2008, the Canadian Medical Association estimated that 21,000 Canadians die every year from heart and lung diseases from polluted air. The Medical Officers of Health in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area (GTHA) have also estimated that traffic-related air pollution is responsible for 700 premature deaths and over 2800 hospital admissions for heart and lung conditions, per year, in the GTHA alone. The pollutant that Volkswagen’s illegal diesel vehicles were emitting –  NOx – is one the major ingredients in smog.  Once in the air, NOx are transformed into ground level ozone and fine particulate matter – the two air pollutants most clearly linked to hospital admissions, premature deaths, and chronic heart and lung diseases.

“Traffic-related air pollution is a huge problem in Canada. It is responsible for thousands of deaths and hospital admissions each year,” said Kim Perrotta, executive director of CAPE. “Volkswagen exceeded the legal standards and they tried to hide it with emissions-cheating devices. The federal government has to take action to demonstrate that companies cannot get away with this type of blatant disregard for Canada’s emission standards and human health.”

The federal government needs to put Canadian health interests first, and punish companies that do not follow emissions regulations. The inefficient investigation underway with Volkswagen sets the standard that Canada’s environment and health standards do not need to be upheld. Instead, a more transparent and proactive approach needs to be taken on by the Ministry of the Environment that will protect Canadians and their health for years to come.

Ontario’s Nuclear Emergency Response Plan Is Far from Adequate

Above: Darlington Nuclear Station on the shore of Lake Ontario, via Óðinn

Nuclear energy provides as much as fifty percent of Ontario’s electricity. It is extremely expensive, produces radioactive waste for which there is no safe disposal or storage, and carries the risk of catastrophic accident (far more serious in Ontario than anywhere else in the world due to our reactors’ proximity to a large population and source of drinking water). Ontario’s nuclear emergency plan is outdated and inadequate.

This summer, the Ontario Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services will be hearing the public’s comments on proposed changes to the province’s Nuclear Emergency Response Plan. This is an excellent opportunity for health professionals to voice concerns about the safety of the nuclear industry in Ontario, and its emergency response plan in particular.

Pickering Nuclear Station, via ilker

Historically, there has been a major nuclear accident every decade since the 1970s. The most recent one occurred in Fukushima, Japan in 2011 when 400,000 residents living 50 kilometres from the Fukushima reactors were evacuated. Half of Ontarians, and one in six Canadians, live within 60 kilometres of Darlington and Pickering nuclear stations, which is why Ontario needs a robust and detailed emergency response plan.

The tragic disaster in Fukushima demonstrated the critical importance of a strong nuclear emergency plan, the value in having clear measures in place to deal with immediate mass health issues among workers and citizens, and the importance of monitoring to prevent long term health effects. International reports and Japanese officials have stated that none of these conditions were adequately in place in Japan prior to the Fukushima accident. Japanese authorities increased permissible dose limits so that workers’ and citizens’ doses would remain in the “acceptable” range. Many important issues had not been addressed as part of an emergency plan, such as knowledge of emergency responders of decontamination methods, adequate transportation of contaminated patients to hospitals, capacity of local hospitals to deal with incoming patients from hospitals within the primary zone that had to be evacuated, malfunctioning of water and electricity supplies in these hospitals, emergency lodging facilities, and secure food supplies.

In Ontario, we believe the current nuclear emergency plan should be designed to respond to a nuclear accident of the same severity as Fukushima. Instead, the Plan is designed for an accident several times less severe. It does not address the needs of vulnerable populations such as the elderly, hospital patients, and children. Nor are there measures in place for training health professionals to deal with large numbers of contaminated patients who would arrive at clinics and hospitals.

Ontario’s nuclear reactors, which are some of the oldest in the world, are all adjacent to the Great Lakes, the source of drinking water for tens of millions of Canadians and Americans. Large quantities of radionuclides would flow into the Great Lakes in the case of a catastrophic accident, and despite the large volume of water, this could affect safety of the drinking water of millions of residents. An adequate emergency plan must include the provision of clean drinking water for the tens of millions of people presently reliant on the Great Lakes.

Aerial view of Pickering Nuclear Station on the shore of Lake Ontario, via Joe Mabel

Public awareness needs to be improved regarding instructions to follow in the case of a nuclear accident as well. For example, iodine pills, which should be ingested within four hours of radiation exposure and preferably before exposure if possible, are needed to prevent thyroid cancer. In Ontario, they are pre-distributed to residents living within a 10 kilometre radius of the reactors. The pills are available to people living within a 50 kilometre radius but most people are unaware of this important preventative measure. Ontario should consider pre-distribution of pills to all residents living within at least 20 kilometers of a nuclear reactor, in keeping with international best practices, as is the case in New Brunswick for the Point Lepreau nuclear reactor.

In order for Ontario to be ready for a major nuclear disaster, an emergency plan should be implemented that is based on a Fukushima-level accident, that includes training and preparation of emergency responders and health professionals, clear communication with the public on an ongoing basis, adequate pre-distribution of iodine pills, and a plan to provide sufficient clean drinking water to the tens of millions of residents reliant on the Great Lakes for their water.

CAPE urges the Ontario government to create a detailed, comprehensive, and transparent emergency plan to protect the health of Ontarians in the case of a catastrophic Fukushima-level nuclear accident.

 

Prepared by Dr. Cathy Vakil, CAPE Board Member, June 2017