The Fraser Institute

The Fraser Institute

January 31, 2012 06:32 ET

The Fraser Institute: Air Quality Improving Across Canada Since 1970s, Risk of Pollution-Related Illness Overstated

VANCOUVER, BRITISH COLUMBIA--(Marketwire - Jan. 31, 2012) - Canada's air quality has improved considerably over the past four decades and continues to improve, concludes a new report released today by the Fraser Institute, Canada's leading public policy think-tank.

"The state of air quality in Canada has improved significantly since the 1970s, in most regions, with respect to all major pollutant types," said Joel Wood, Fraser Institute senior research economist and author of Canadian Environmental Indicators - Air Quality.

"Yet environmental and health care organizations continue to scare people into thinking that air pollution is increasing and that this presents a serious health risk in Canada. These claims are exaggerated or outright wrong."

As an example, the study highlights a pair of recent reports from the Canadian Medical Association and Suzuki Foundation which argued for stricter air-pollution regulations in Canada, based on assumptions that air pollution was increasing or remaining constant. Both studies received extensive media coverage despite the fact they provided no historical context and arrived at their conclusions based on false assumptions.

Canadian Environmental Indicators - Air Quality examines long-term monitoring data from Environment Canada's National Air Pollution Surveillance network on five major air pollutants regularly cited as posing health risks to Canadians: Ground-level ozone, particulate matter, nitrogen dioxide, sulfur dioxide, and carbon monoxide. The study also examines the air quality standards and regulatory mechanisms already in force in Canada to determine whether local air quality is getting better or worse, and how it compares to the clean air targets in place across the country.

The data indicate that, in most instances, Canadians currently experience significantly better air quality than at any other time since monitoring of air quality began in the 1970s, and that air quality continues to improve. Concentrations of two of the most concerning pollutants (ground-level ozone and ultra-fine particulate matter) have generally decreased across Canada since 2000.

Specifically, ultra-fine particulate matter concentrations have decreased since wide-spread monitoring began around 2000. In 2008, the latest year for which there is data for all provinces, the Canada-wide standard for ultra-fine particulate matter was achieved at all but two of 125 monitoring stations. Ground-level ozone has decreased in most Canadian provinces, including Ontario and Quebec, since 1980.

The study also found that average annual concentrations of carbon monoxide and sulfur dioxide have decreased in Canada by 87 per cent and 80 per cent, respectively, since monitoring began in 1974. Average annual nitrogen dioxide concentrations have decreased over 60 per cent since monitoring began in 1980.

"This analysis of national, long-term air-quality monitoring data refutes the widely publicized reports from health and environmental groups claiming that increasing air pollution is leading to increasing deaths and massive future health care expenditures," Wood said.

The report notes that Canada's air quality objectives, which are enforced through a flexible yet comprehensive policy framework that involves all levels of government, are stringent by international standards. Industrial operations may not release substances into the air without obtaining approval from provincial governments. The provincial approval process imposes restrictions on emissions sources to ensure local pollution levels do not exceed ambient air quality objectives set by the federal and provincial governments. Emissions from diffuse and mobile sources, such as motor vehicles, are controlled through standards and regulations imposed by federal, provincial, and local governments.

"Costly energy or environmental policy initiatives based on claims that air pollution is rising or exceeds safe levels need to be carefully scrutinized," Wood said.

"There is no evidence that Canada's air quality regulations need to be made more stringent. In many instances, tightening air quality regulations would only increase costs and have no discernible effect on improving air quality."

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The Fraser Institute is an independent Canadian public policy research and educational organization with offices in Vancouver, Calgary, Toronto, and Montreal and ties to a global network of 85 think-tanks. Its mission is to measure, study, and communicate the impact of competitive markets and government intervention on the welfare of individuals. To protect the Institute's independence, it does not accept grants from governments or contracts for research. Visit

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