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More hot, hazy and humid brings more risks

So, hot enough for you? That question might just be enough to set some people off of late, as the area baked in a heat wave. Beyond the bottled water, ice cream and surging electricity bills, the hot, hazy and humid weather comes at a price for our health.

The Canadian Medical Association estimates more than 20,000 Canadians will die prematurely from the effects of air pollution. While most of those deaths will be due to chronic exposure over a number of years, almost 3,000 will be the result of acute, short-term exposure.

Studies have shown the effects of poor air quality based on the concentrations of  smog-related pollutants, ozone and particulate matter. Specific findings include: by 2031, almost 90,000 Canadians will have died from the acute short-term effects of air pollution; the number of deaths, due to long-term exposure, will be more than 700,000; 80 per cent of those who die due to air pollution will be over age 65; Ontario and Quebec residents are the worst hit Canadians, with 70 per cent of the premature deaths occurring in Central Canada, even though these two provinces comprise only 62 per cent of Canada’s population.

There’s also a financial cost, estimated in 2008 at more than $8 billion. By 2031, the cost of air pollution will have accumulated to more than $250 billion.

The International Institute for Sustainable Development notes direct health-care costs due to pollution cost us billions of dollars, and come with negative consequences on our incomes due to sick days and lost time, for instance. It estimates income costs of upwards of three  per cent of the combined net income of households, businesses and governments.

Smog is a complex mixture of pollutants, mainly ground-level ozone and fine particulate matter.

Ground-level ozone is different from the stratospheric ozone layer, which protects us from the sun’s harmful ultraviolet rays. At ground-level, ozone gas is toxic to the respiratory system, and is the pollutant that has historically triggered nearly all of the smog alerts in Ontario. Fine particulate matter consists of tiny specks of liquid or solid particles that are suspended in the air, and contain soot and acids, which can lodge deep in our lungs.

The main sources of the manmade chemicals that make up smog are automobile emissions, coal-burning power plants and heavy industries. The toxins may be local, or from as far away as the U.S.: prevailing winds often carry pollutants from the Ohio valley up into the province.

Since polluted air masses cover large areas, and usually move slowly, the smog problem is not only confined to cities and industrial centres. That’s why the haze of the worst smog days can be seen out in the townships.

Ironically, the air quality is worst just as we want to be outside. We’re encouraged to be active – walking, hiking and cycling – but also warned about the increased stress on our lungs due to the pollutants.

A quick jump on a bike in the thick of traffic, even on the best of days, will let you know why that is. The heat and exhaust pouring out of cars, buses and trucks can be stifling. A bout of that makes you appreciate the wide open spaces and sparse traffic to be found on township roads. But with the kind of weather that enveloped us of late, we’re being warned against all kinds of strenuous activities, and advised to stay indoors as much as possible.

Not the ideal summer lifestyle, but a reminder of what we’ve done to the environment.

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