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 Ontario’s nuclear emergency plan is outdated and inadequate.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

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Coal Plants have a Significant Impact on Air Quality and Health: Incomplete Facts Don’t Change the Truth

It is a sad statement of our times that in the middle of an important public health debate, the National Post has printed a commentary that muddies the water with incomplete facts and misleading information about coal plants, air pollution and human health (Warren Kindzierski, They keep saying shutting down coal will make us healthier, so how come there’s no evidence of it? February 24, 2017).

Coal Plants and Air Pollution

Kindzierski maintains that coal plants are not a major contributor of fine particulate matter (PM2.5), the air pollutant that has been most clearly and consistently linked to chronic heart and lung diseases as well as acute health impacts. Kindzierski refers readers to several of his own studies, one of which contains a graph (posted above) that identifies coal combustion (the mustard yellow bar) as a small contributor of ultra fine particles in Alberta’s air (Md. Anul Bari et al., 2015). He fails to explain however, that coal plants are one the most significant sources of sulphur dioxide (SO2), the gaseous air pollutant that is transformed in the air into secondary sulphate (the large brown bar).

Secondary sulphate, as illustrated by the author’s own graph, is the most significant source of ultra fine particles, the most worrisome portion of PM2.5. In 2014, coal-fired power plants were responsible for 40% of the SO2 emitted in all of Alberta and 60% of the SO2 emitted in the Edmonton Region (Pembina 2016a). In other words, coal plants were the largest source of SO2 that is transformed into the secondary sulphates that contribute most significantly to air levels of ultra fine particles and PM2.5 in Alberta.

Air Pollution and Human Health

Kindzierski then goes on to challenge the view that air pollutants other than PM2.5 and ground level ozone are harmful to human health, and even calls into question the health evidence associated with PM2.5. Thousands of studies have been directed at the acute and chronic health impacts associated with air pollution over several decades. In 2013, the World Health Organization (WHO) reassessed the health literature on air pollution and found, among many other things, stronger evidence that short- and long-term exposure to PM2.5 increases the risk of mortality and morbidity particularly for cardiovascular effects; stronger evidence that short-term exposures to ozone can have negative effects on a range of pulmonary and vascular health-relevant end-points; new evidence that short- and long-term exposure to nitrogen dioxide (NO2) can increase the risk of morbidity and mortality, mainly for respiratory outcomes; and additional evidence that exposure to SO2 may contribute to cardiovascular and respiratory mortality and morbidity and asthma symptoms in children (WHO, 2013). These findings are well known and well accepted by public health, environmental, and medical professionals around the world.

Coal Plants, Air Pollution and Human Health

In 2012, using the Air Quality Benefits Assessment Tool (AQBAT) developed by Health Canada, Environment Canada estimated that improved air quality resulting from the current coal regulations would prevent approximately 994 premature deaths and 860 hospital admissions or emergency room visits between 2015 and 2035 (Environment Canada, 2013). These avoided health outcomes were valued at $4.9 billion. In 2016, the Pembina Institute extrapolated these results to determine the additional health benefits associated with a 2030 coal plant phase-out in Canada. It found that a 2030 phase-out date would nearly double the health benefits associated with the existing coal regulations, preventing an additional 1,008 premature deaths and 871 hospital admissions or emergency room visits between 2015 and 2035. These additional health benefits were valued at nearly $5 billion (Pembina 2016b).

It is clear to us: a 2030 Canada-wide phase-out of coal-fired power plants is a public policy that will produce many direct public health benefits for Canadian while simultaneously helping us to meet our commitments under the Paris Climate Change Agreement.

Prepared by Kim Perrotta, Executive Director, CAPE, March 7, 2017

Ontario’s Coal Plant Phase-out Produced Many Health and Environmental Benefits

On January 17, 2017, industry think-tank the Fraser Institute released a new report, Did the Coal Phase-out Reduce Ontario Air Pollution? which suggests that coal plants across Canada should not be phased out based on its assertion that Ontario’s phase-out did not significantly reduce air pollution (Fraser Institute, 2017). This report includes a number of statements about pollution, health care benefits, and coal plants that are incorrect or misleading.

The Fraser report focuses on the air pollution benefits of the Ontario coal plant phase-out while ignoring the many co-benefits associated with this action. In 2002, the five coal-fired power plants in Ontario were responsible for

  • nearly one quarter (23%) of the sulphur dioxide (SO2) emissions and one seventh (14%) of the nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions in Ontario that contributed to air pollution and acid rain,
  • nearly one quarter (23%) of the airborne mercury emissions which contributed to the contamination of fish with a persistent toxic that is harmful to the brains of humans, and
  • one fifth (20%) of Ontario’s greenhouse gases emissions that were contributing to climate change (OPHA, 2002).
Figure 1: Annual SO2 Emissons by Sector, Ontario (OMOECC)
Figure 1: Annual Emissions of Sulphur Dioxide, Different Sectors, Ontario, 2003-2012 (OMOECC, 2014)

Over the last 20 years, the public health sector, the Ontario Medical Association, environmental organizations, cottagers’ associations, and labour organizations have been outspoken advocates for the phase-out of coal plants in Ontario. All of these groups shared the common view that many health and environmental benefits could be gained simultaneously by closing Ontario’s coal plants.

While there were technologies that could be applied to reduce emissions of sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, and mercury from these plants, there was no technology at that time that could eliminate emissions of greenhouse gases. Given the age of Ontario’s coal plants, the availability of combined cycle natural gas plants, the promise of energy efficiency, and renewable technologies, it made more sense economically to accelerate the closure of coal plants than to re-invest in them.

Figure 2: annual air levels of sulfur dioxide in Ontario, 2004-2013
Figure 2: Annual Air Levels of Sulphur Dioxide, Selected Sites, Ontario, 2004-2013 (OMOECC, 2014)

The Fraser report and press release suggest that coal plants are not a major contributor of fine particulate matter (PM2.5)—the air pollutant that has been mostly clearly linked to chronic health impacts such as heart disease and lung cancer, and one of two air pollutants responsible for most of the smog alerts that used to be common in Ontario. This is simply not true.

Coal plants emit significant quantities of SO2 and substantial quantities of NOx. Both are gaseous air pollutants that can harm human health directly. When they enter the atmosphere, they can be transformed into sulphates and nitrates—acid particles that contribute to air levels of PM2.5. In fact, this secondary PM2.5 is the major culprit behind high levels of PM2.5 measured in many airsheds and is often more hazardous for human health than other forms of PM2.5 (RIAS, 2011). This PM2.5 does not, however, show up in emission inventories for PM2.5.

The Fraser Institute suggests that Ontario’s coal phase-out had little impact on emissions and air quality. This is misleading. Between 2003 and 2012, SO2 emissions from coal plants were reduced by about 140,000 tonnes (see Figure 1). During that same period, annual air levels of SO2 across Ontario declined by nearly 50% (see Figure 2) and annual air levels of PM2.5 declined by about 25% (see Figure 3) (OMOECC, 2014). While the improvements in air levels of SO2 and PM2.5 cannot be attributed solely to the closure of coal plants, their closure was an important contributor to reductions in air levels.

Figure 3: annual air levels of fine particulate matter in Ontario, 2004-2013
Figure 3: Annual Air Levels of Fine Particulate Matter, Selected Sites, Ontario 2004-2013 (OMOECC, 2014)

Air quality is impacted by multiple sources of pollution. The actions to reduce air pollution are intentionally broad-based because the improvements are cumulative. Coal plants are an efficient target for emission reductions because they are stationary sources that emit large volumes of air pollutants. They are also a significant source of air toxics such as mercury and greenhouse gases.

Air pollution is also a transboundary issue. Emissions of SO2 and NOx from coal plants in the U.S. have a significant impact on Ontario’s air quality, while emissions from Ontario’s coal plants have a substantial impact on air quality in Quebec, Vermont and New York (Yap et al., 2005). In recognition of this reality, Canada and the United States committed in 1991 to take action on both sides of the border with the Canada-US Air Quality Agreement. This agreement has proven very successful. Emissions and air quality on both sides of the border have improved because of cooperation between the two countries (Canada-US, 2014).

In 2005, Ontario estimated the contribution of coal plants to air pollution across Ontario and the adverse health impacts associated with that contribution. Because coal plants release air pollutants so high in the air, the pollutants are dispersed over long distances. The impact, therefore, on any one airshed is relatively small, but the impact overall on human health can be significant because so many people can be affected. Using methodologies that were well-accepted in other jurisdictions, Ontario estimated that air pollution from its  coal plants were responsible for over 600 premature deaths, 900 hospital admissions, and 1000 emergency room visits, each year, in Ontario. These health impacts were valued at $3 billion per year (OMOE, 2005).

The Fraser report suggests that the $3 billion in health benefits estimated cannot be accurate because it represents too great a percentage of Ontario’s health care budget. This statement reflects a misunderstanding about the health benefits estimated in 2005. The $3 billion per year in health benefits reflect the value of the many lives that are shortened by air pollution, as well as health care costs. They do not reflect health care costs alone. The 2005 report is clear about this point.

 An independent assessment conducted by Toronto Public Health in 2014 suggests that improvements in Ontario’s air quality have translated into significant health benefits for Ontario residents. Toronto Public Health found that improvements in Toronto’s air quality from 2000 to 2011 have reduced air pollution-related premature deaths by 23% (from 1,700 to 1,300 per year) and hospital admissions by 41% (from 6,000 to 3,550 per year) in Toronto alone.  It attributes the improvements in air quality to a variety of policies implemented by different levels of government including the phase-out of coal plants by Ontario (TPH, 2014).

With the evidence of catastrophic climate change mounting daily, the need to modernize Canada’s electricity sector has never been more clear. With the costs of renewable technologies dropping, the opportunity to transform our economy has never been greater. CAPE stands by its position. We believe that the phase-out of coal plants in Alberta and across Canada is an economically prudent decision that will improve the health of Canadians while taking the steps needed to address climate change.

Prepared by Kim Perrotta, MHSc, Executive Director, CAPE

References:

  • Canada-US, 2014. Canada-U.S. Air Quality Agreement Progress
  • Fraser Institute.  (2017). Did the Coal Phase-out Reduce Ontario Air Pollution? Prepared by Ross McKitrick and Elmira Aliakbari.
  • Ontario Ministry of Energy (OMOE).  2005. Cost Benefit Analysis: Replacing Ontario’s Coal-Fired Electricity Generation. Prepared by DSS Management Consultants Inc. RWDI Air Inc. April, 2005
  • Ontario Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change (OMOECC). 2014. Air Quality in Ontario 2013 Report.
  • Ontario Public Health Association (OPHA). 2002. Beyond Coal: Power, Public Health and the Environment
  • Regulatory Impact Assessment Study (RIAS). 2011.  Reduction of Carbon Dioxide Emissions from Coal-Fired Generation of Electricity Regulations.
  • Toronto Public Health (TPH). 2014. Path to Healthier Air: Toronto Air Pollution Burden of Illness Update. Technical Report.
  • World Health Organization (WHO). 2013. Review of evidence on health aspects of air pollution – REVIHAAP Project.
  • Yap, David, Neville Reid, Gary De Brou, and Robert Bloxam. 2005. Transboundary Air Pollution in Ontario 2005. Queen’s Printer.

Three Health Reasons to Close Coal Plants!

Photo: Ontario Power Generation-Demolition of Lakeview Generating Station, Mississauga, Ontario

Working in collaboration with 15 health organizations from across Canada, CAPE made a formal submission to one of the four Federal/Provincial Working Groups that is collecting ideas to create the Climate Action Plan that will meet Canada’s obligations to the Paris Agreement on Climate Change. 

The submission, co-signed by organizations such as Heart and Stroke Foundation, The Canadian Lung Association, the Asthma Society of Canada, and the Canadian Public Health Association, calls for the closure of all coal-fired power plants in Canada by 2025.  Our reasons are three-fold:

  1. The closure of coal-fired power plants globally is essential to the slowing of climate change;

The World Health Organization (WHO) has declared climate change to be “the greatest threat to global health in the 21st century” (WHO, 2016).  It has estimated that, between 2030 and 2050, climate change will produce at least 250,000 additional deaths each year: 38,000 due to heat exposure among elderly people; 48,000 due to diarrhoea; 60,000 due to malaria; and 95 000 due to childhood under-nutrition (WHO 2014a). 

Coal-fired power plants are one of the most significant emitters of greenhouse gases (GHGs) on a global scale.  They are responsible 43% of greenhouse gases from all energy-related activities (IEA, 2015).  The International Energy Agency has identified the closure of coal-fired power plants as one of the five climate policies essential to international success on climate change (IEA, 2015).

Before 2005, coal-fired power plants were responsible for about 15% of Canada’s greenhouse gases (NIR, 2014).  By phasing out is six coal-fired power plants, Ontario has reduced Canada’s GHG emissions by about 7%.  In 2014, coal-fired power plants in Alberta, Saskatchewan, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick were still responsible for were responsible for about 8.5% of all GHG emissions in Canada (NIR, 2014).  In order for Canada to effectively advocate for their closure globally, it must demonstrate leadership at home. 

  1. The closure of Canada’s coal-fired power plants will prevent heart and lung diseases, premature deaths, hospital admissions, and emergency room visits in Canada; 

Coal-fired power plants release large volumes of air pollutants such as sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and fine particulate matter that have been clearly and consistently linked to increased rates of cardiovascular and respiratory diseases, including lung cancer, and increased rates of asthma symptoms, respiratory infections, emergency room visits, hospital admissions, and premature deaths (WHO, 2013). 

In 2005, Ontario’s six coal plants were estimated to be responsible for more than 600 premature deaths, 900 hospital admissions, and 1000 emergency room visits in Ontario each year (OMOE, 2005).  These health impacts were valued at $4.4 billion per year (OMOE, 2005).  In 2013, the six coal-fired power plants in Alberta were estimated to be responsible for approximately 100 premature deaths, 80 hospital admissions, 700 emergency room visits, and 4,800 asthma symptom days.  These health impacts have been valued at approximately $300 million per year or $3 billion over a 10-year period (Pembina 2013).

Coal-fired power plants are one of the most significant sources of sulphur dioxide which is a precursor of fine particulate matter.  In 2014, with 736 emitters of sulphur dioxide in Canada, 12 of the top 25 emitters were coal-fired power plants; five in Alberta, three in Saskatchewan, three in Nova Scotia, and one in New Brunswick (ECCC, 2014a).

  1. The closure of Canada’s coal-fired power plants will help protect the mental capacity of our children from mercury.

By closing the remaining coal-fired power plants in Canada, we can help protect the cognitive development of our children, reduce health and social service expenses associated with neuro-developmental health impacts, and reclaim fish as a high-quality protein source that is available as a traditional food source or economic resource. 

Coal-fired power plants are a major source of mercury; a persistent toxic substance that accumulates in the aquatic food chain (CCME, 2005). Prenatal and early life exposure to mercury, resulting from the consumption of mercury-contaminated fish, has been linked to adverse developmental impacts such as reductions in cognitive abilities and motor skills (CCME, 2005).  Researchers have attributed 3.2% of intellectual disability cases in the United States to mercury exposure and valued these excess cases at $2.0 billion per year (Trasande et al., 2006).  Women of childbearing age, pregnant women, children, and populations that depend on fish as a traditional food source, are at greatest risk from mercury (CCME, 2005).

In 2014, nearly 2,400 kilograms of mercury were emitted into the air from 269 sources across Canada (ECCC, 2014).  Coal-fired power plants were the single largest source of those emissions; responsible for nearly 35% of mercury emissions nationally (ECCC, 2014).  Two of the plants operating in Saskatchewan were the two highest emitters in the country; responsible for approximately 16% of all mercury released across Canada (ECCC, 2014).

The submission from CAPE and its partners can be viewed here. 

The press release is available here.

Prepared by Kim Perrotta, Executive Director, CAPE

References

  • Canadian Council of Ministers of the Environment (CCME). 2005. Canada-Wide Standards for Mercury Emissions from Coal-Fired Electric Power Generation Plants (2006).
  • Environment Canada and Climate Change (ECCC). 2014. NPRI Data: Mercury. NPRI-Mercury-2014
  • Environment Canada and Climate Change (ECCC). 2014a. NPRI Data: Sulphur Dioxide. NPRI-Sulphur Dioxide-2014
  • International Energy Agency (IEA). 2015. Energy ad Climate Change.  IEA-Climate Change 2015
  • National Inventory Report (NIR). 2014. Table A13-1 of Part 3.  UNFCCC Inventories 2014
  • Ontario Ministry of Energy (OMOE). Cost Benefit Analysis: Replacing Ontario’s Coal-Fired Electricity Generation. Prepared by DSS Management Consultants Inc. RWDI Air Inc. April, 2005
  • Pembina Institute, Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment, Asthma Society of Canada and The Lung Association Alberta and NWT (Pembina). 2013. A Costly Diagnosis: Subsidizing coal power with Albertans’ health.
  • L, C Schechter, K.A. Haynes, P.J. Landrigan. 2006.. Mental retardation and prenatal methylmercury toxicity. Am J Ind Med. 2006 Mar;49(3):153-8.  http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16470549
  • World Health Organization (WHO). 2013. Review of evidence on health aspects of air pollution – REVIHAAP Project.
  • World Health Organization (WHO). 2014a. Quantitative risk assessment of the effects of climate change on selected causes of death, 2030s and 2050s. http://apps.who.int/iris/bitstream/10665/134014/1/9789241507691_eng.pdf?ua=1
  • World Health Organization (WHO). 2016. WHO Director-General Keynote address at the Human Rights Council panel discussion on climate change and the right to health. http://www.who.int/dg/speeches/2016/human-rights-council/en/

Health Professionals Call for End for Coal

Coal Power Plant for Electricity Production - Chimeneas Industriales

More than 300,000 doctors, nurses, public health professionals and public health advocates represented by 82 organizations from 30 countries have released a Global Health Statement on Coal Plants today, in anticipation of next week’s G7 summit.  The statement calls on the G7 leaders to discuss the phase-out of coal plants as a key health issue when they meet on May 26 and 27. 

In Canada, 12 organizations have signed the statement including the Canadian Public Health Association (CPHA), the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada, the Registered Nurses’ Association of Ontario (RNAO), the Canadian Lung Association, the Ontario Public Health Association (OPHA) and the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment (CAPE).   

“The World Health Organization (WHO) has declared that “climate change is the greatest threat to global health in the 21st century,” said Dr. Courtney Howard, emergency room physician in Yellowknife and Board Member of CAPE. “The WHO estimates that climate change will claim the lives of 250,000 people each year by 2030 unless we take dramatic steps to reduce emissions today.”

Canada can be a global leader on this issue, building on momentum from the provinces.  Ontario no longer burns coal for electricity and Alberta intends to follow suit by 2030.  Accelerating the transition away from coal creates immediate health benefits: the avoided health impacts from Ontario’s phase-out alone are valued at approximately $3 billion per year.

“We want our leaders to understand that they can produce significant air pollution health benefits in their home countries by phasing out coal plants,” said Ian Culbert, Executive Director of the CPHA.  “The air pollution from coal plants has been clearly linked to increases in heart disease, strokes, lung diseases including lung cancer, and asthma symptoms.” 

“Ontario’s six coal plants produced approximately 600 premature deaths and 900 hospital admissions each year back in 2005” said Kim Perrotta, Executive Director CAPE.  “With their phase-out, levels of air pollution in Ontario have declined dramatically along with air pollution-related health impacts.”  

“In Alberta, the phase-out of 18 coal-fired generators is expected to produce health benefits worth about $300 million per year,” offered Dr. Joe Vipond, emergency room physician in Calgary and CAPE member.  “Imagine what we could achieve if we phased out the 16 coal-fired generators in Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Saskatchewan as well”.

A copy of the Global Health Statement on Coal Plants is available here: https://cape.ca/global-health-statement-on-coal-plants/

CAPE Media Release, Toronto, May 18, 2016

The ABC’s of Global Climate Change

Siur-thinkstock-480457436-Coal StacksIn 2015, the International Panel on Climate Change (Panel) reported that: greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) from human activity are now higher than any other period in human history; the concentration of GHGs in the atmosphere is now higher than at any other time in the last 800,000 years; and it is “extremely likely” that emissions from human activity, along with other human activities such as deforestation, have been the dominant cause of global warming since the mid-20th century (1).

The Panel reported that, in 2010, approximately 49 Gigatonnes (Gt) of GHGs were emitted from human activity, and that fossil fuel combustion and industrial processes were responsible for more than three quarters of those emissions (1).

According to the Panel, there is fairly strong to very strong evidence that climate change has: more than doubled the occurrence of heat waves in some locations; increased heat-related deaths in some regions; increased extreme precipitation and the risks of flooding in some regions; increased extreme sea levels (e.g., storm surges) since 1970 as a result of increasing sea levels; and significantly increased the vulnerability of some ecosystems and human populations to heat waves, droughts, floods, and cyclones (1).

51Systems-Thinkstock-490736941-Flooded Neighbourhood

The impacts of climate change on human health and the environment are expected to become more extreme as we move through the 21st century.  Under a number of different scenarios, it is predicted that climate change will: increase the frequency and intensity of heat waves and extreme precipitation; increase ocean temperatures, ocean acidification, and sea levels; continue to melt permafrost and glaciers; increase the risk of extinction for many plants and animals; undermine the security of food and water supplies; and increase the displacement of people (1).  

The severity of these risks, however, will vary significantly depending upon the actions taken to reduce emissions and protect carbon sinks.  The risks are expected to be severe if global temperatures increase by 4 degrees relative to pre-industrial times.  They are expected to be moderate to high if global temperatures increase by 1 to 2 degrees.  While some of the risks of climate change are now unavoidable, the risks of climate change can be substantially reduced by aggressively cutting emissions of GHGs in the very near future (1).   

In order to keep the global temperature from increasing by 2 degrees, models suggest that annual GHG emissions around the world must be reduced by 40 to 70% of 2010 levels by the year 2050.  To keep the global temperature from increasing by 1.5 degree, annual GHG emissions must be reduced by 70 to 95% of 2010 levels by the year 2050 (1).

Wind Turbines, Leamington, Ontario, Kim PerrottaIn order to meet these aggressive goals, the Panel has identified a number of key measures: moving away from the use of coal and other fossil fuels for the generation of electricity; enhancing energy efficiency to reduce energy demand; and encouraging behavioural changes to reduce energy demand.  In the majority of the models that support a stable climate future, the share of low-carbon electricity supply (e.g., hydro electricity, solar energy, wind turbines) increases from current levels of about 30% to more than 80% by 2050 (1).  

The Panel notes that many of the actions needed to reduce GHG emissions are associated with co-benefits or adverse side effects.  It notes, however, that the co-benefits associated with “energy end-use measures” outweigh the potential for adverse side effects (1).  For example when coal plants are phased out with investments in energy efficiency and renewable energies, significant health benefits can result from improvements in air quality (2).  Likewise, when public transit and bike lanes shift commuters out of their vehicles, significant health benefits can result from improvements in air quality and increases in the levels of physical activity among residents (3).    

Prepared by Kim Perrotta, Executive Director, CAPE, February 17, 2016

References: 

  1. International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). 2015. Climate Change 2014 Synthesis Report for Policy Makers. https://www.ipcc.ch/pdf/assessment-report/ar5/syr/AR5_SYR_FINAL_SPM.pdf
  2. Pembina Institute, CAPE, Asthma Society, Lung Assocation of Alberta and NWT. 2013. A Costly Diagnosis – Subsidizing coal power with Albertans’ health.  Prepared by Kristi Anderson, Tim Weis, Ben Thibault, Farrah Khan, Beth Nanni, and Noah Farber.  http://cape.ca/wp-content/uploads/2015/09/costly-diagnosis.pdf
  3. Grabow, Maggie, Scott Spak, Tracey Holloway, Brian Stone Jr., Adam Menick, Jonathan Patz. 2011. “Air Quality and Exercise-Related Health Benefits from Reduced Car Travel in the Midwestern United States”,Environmental Health Perspectives.  http://dx.doi.org/10.1289/ehp.1103440

Closing Alberta’s Coal Plants – A Boon for Canada’s Climate and Alberta’s Air Quality

coal stack header - cropped

The closure of 18 generators in six coal-fired power plants in Alberta would produce climate benefits for all Canadians and immediate air quality health benefits for Albertans.  The Canadian government has proposed a commitment to reduce greenhouse gases to levels that are 30% below 2005 emission levels by the year 2030 to help slow climate change.  Unfortunately, current projections suggest that Canada will be emitting 11% more emissions than 2005 levels by 2030 (1).  This means there is an urgent need for dramatic action across Canada.  Alberta is the most carbon intensive province in the country.  It is currently responsible for 37% of all greenhouse gases emitted by Canadians and its six coal-fired power plants contributed 17% of those emissions (2).  If Alberta were to phase-out these coal plants, as Ontario has done, it could reduce all of Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions by more than 6%.    

Figure 1: Map produced by Environment Canada; Notations added by Pembina Institute
Figure 1: Map produced by Environment Canada; Notations added by Pembina Institute

This phase-out would simultaneously produce significant health benefits for Albertans.  In 2011, the six coal plants were responsible for one third of the sulphur dioxide, 10 per cent of the nitrogen oxides, and 6 per cent of the industrial fine particulate matter emitted into Alberta’s air (3).  These air pollutants, and the fine particulate matter that is created in the air from them, are the common air pollutants that have been clearly and consistently linked to premature deaths, hospital admissions, and emergency room visits for conditions such as congestive heart failure, strokes, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and asthma (4). These air pollutants have also been shown to increase the rates of chronic heart and lung diseases, including lung cancer and asthma, among the general population (4).

Using the Illness Cost of Air Pollution (ICAP) model, CAPE and its partners estimated that, each year, air pollution from Alberta’s coal-fired power plants give rise to approximately: 100 premature deaths, 700 visits to Alberta’s emergency departments, 80 hospital admissions, and 4,800 asthma symptom days (3).  The ICAP model valued these health impacts at approximately $300 million per year or $3 billion when extrapolated over a 10 year period (3).  These are preventable health impacts!

Figure 2: Sulphur Dioxide Emissions by Sector, Ontario, 2003-2012 (6)
Figure 2: Sulphur Dioxide Emissions by Sector, Ontario, 2003-2012 (6)

Policy changes can and do improve air quality and human health.  Ontario, which phased out its coal-fired power plants between 2004 and 2014, has seen significant improvements in its air quality.  The phase-out in Ontario removed 147,000 tonnes of sulphur dioxide and 42,000 tonnes of nitrogen oxides from Ontario’s airshed (5). While these air pollutants are harmful to health directly, they can also be transformed in the air into small liquid droplets that contribute to air levels of fine particulate matter.  

Between 2000 and 2010, annual air levels of sulphur dioxide in the City of Toronto decreased by 79%, nitrogen dioxide levels decreased by 36%, and fine particulate matter levels decreased by 30% (7).   Toronto Public Health reported that these improvements in air quality have have reduced: air pollution-related premature deaths in Toronto by 23% from 1,700 per year to 1,300 per year; and air pollution-related hospital admissions by 41% from 6,000 to 3,550 per year (7).  In other words, improvements in air quality are preventing 400 premature deaths and 2450 hospital admissions per year in Toronto alone (7).  While these improvements reflect policies implemented by several levels of government, the phase-out of coal plants in Ontario and south of the border, were significant contributors.

Today, the City of Edmonton, which is downwind from many of the coal-fired generators in Alberta, has higher levels of fine particulate matter than the City of Toronto.  While Ontario has been phasing out its coal-fired power plants, Alberta has been increasing its reliance on coal as a source of electricity.  By phasing out coal-fired power plants, Alberta could send a strong and positive message to the international community about its willingness to address climate change, while significantly improving the health of Albertans.  

For more information, see the energy page on the CAPE website or the Alberta Coal Phase-out Website. 

Prepared by Kim Perrotta, Executive Director, Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment (CAPE), and Dr. Joe Vipond, Emergency Room Physician in Calgary and CAPE member, November 2, 2015

References: 

  1. Government of Canada (Canada). 2015. Canada’s INDC Submission to the UNFCCC, 2015 
  2. Alberta Government. 2015. Climate Leadership – Discussion Document. 
  3. Pembina Institute, Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment, Asthma Society of Canada and The Lung Association Alberta and NWT (Pembina). 2013. A Costly Diagnosis: Subsidizing coal power with Albertans’ health. 
  4. World Health Organization (WHO). 2013. Review of evidence on health aspects of air pollution – REVIHAAP Project. 
  5. Ontario Public Health Association (OPHA). 2002. Beyond Coal: Power, Public Health and the Environment. Prepared by Kim Perrotta. 
  6. Ontario Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change (OMOE). 2014. Air Quality in Ontario 2013 Report. 
  7. Toronto Public Health (TPH). 2014. Path to Healthier Air: Toronto Air Pollution Burden of Illness Update. Technical Report.