Canadian physicians group blames coal power for Edmonton's poor air quality

Edmonton's air quality is worse than that of larger centres such as Toronto, according to a group of Canadian physicians.

Physicians group finds troubling trend in Edmonton after studying a decade's worth of air quality data

RAW: Edmonton rivals Toronto for title of "the big smoke"

8 years ago
Duration 1:58
Watch as CBC reporter James Hees compares Edmonton with Toronto.

A group of physicians is cautioning that Edmonton's air quality is worse than that of other larger centres such as Toronto, a fact they blame in part on coal-fired electrical generating plants.

The Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment has examined a decade's worth of air quality data, which group member Dr. Joe Vipond says show a troubling trend in Edmonton.

Although only about one-fifth the size of greater Toronto in terms of population, Edmonton has significantly higher levels of fine particulate matter in the air, the group's findings suggest.

At a time when most Canadian cities are reducing dependence on coal-fired electrical generation, Edmonton's rose 13 per cent last year, Calgary-based Vipond told CBC news.

"This fine particulate matter has been dropping steadily over the last 10 years in Ontario … as their coal phase-out has occurred," he said ."Overall, the trend is going up (in Edmonton)."

Travel deeply down

The particulates, which are significantly smaller than the diameter of a human hair, are invisible, and can remain suspended in the air for days or weeks.

"When we breathe them in, they can travel deeply down into our respiratory tract and when they deposit and come in contact with tissue, generally they lead to inflammation," said Michael Brauer, a professor in School of Population and Public Health at the University of British Columbia.

Brauer said the particulates have been linked to a number of cardiovascular and respiratory health problems in areas that rely on coal-fired electrical plants around the world, including increased heart attacks, abnormal heart rhythms, heart failure, strokes, lung cancer and emphysema. The substance can also affect fetal health, birth weight and lung development in children.

In December, a report released by Alberta's Environment and Sustainable Resource Development showed two Edmonton regions — Edmonton Central and Edmonton East — exceeded the Canada-wide standards for the amount of fine particulate matter in the air.

Under the Clean Air Strategic Alliance, the province was mandated to notify residents, Dr. Vipond said — however, that report was released at 4:30 p.m. on a Friday with little fanfare.

Coal not only problem, say critics

"I didn't find out about if for 10 days afterwards, and as far as I know there was only one media story ever done about this," he said Tuesday.

After reading the province's report, Dr. Vipond began looking into the air quality numbers himself, first examining the smog alerts issued for Toronto by Air Quality Ontario.

"In 2014, for the first time in over 20 years, they had zero smog days," he said. "That happens to be probably not coincidentally the year that they closed their last coal-fired power plant in April."

Next, the team of physicians looked at air quality data produced by CAPE and Air Quality Ontario comparing Edmonton and Toronto.

"We made some graphs and we noticed that one graph was going up and one graph was going down and about four years ago those lines crossed," Dr. Vipond said.

Coal-fired power

"This is a good news story for Ontario. They can be extremely proud of what they've done for their air quality and pretty safe in how they're feeling walking around in the air — but here in Edmonton, this is a pretty bad news story. We've been neglecting the quality of our air."

Now, Vipond says he'd like to see Alberta begin to lessen its reliance on coal-fired power.

Brauer, however, said it is still too early to make any conclusions from the air quality data collected by CAPE. He also noted the presence of particulates in the air can not be pinned on coal alone.

"A portion of that (Ontario's improving air quality) is likely due to the phase-out of the coal burning, but there are many other factors at play," he said.

Those include improvements made to fuel quality and automobile emissions over the measured time period, he said, which could be responsible for at least some of the decrease seen in Ontario.

And there are factors — including forest fires and weather patterns — that can cause a spike in particulate quantities in Edmonton, he said.

Bob Myrick with the Alberta Environmental Monitoring, Evaluation and Reporting Agency agrees.

Troubling fact remains

"Part of it is automobiles, home heating, the domestic sources — and then the industry sources including the power plants, the refineries east of Edmonton and northeast of Edmonton, they all contribute to the air quality issue that we have," he said.

Regardless of the source, one troubling fact remains.

While most Canadian cities have seen a reduction in airborne particulates over the past decade, Edmonton is a rare exception.

"Basically, it looks like over time we've definitely seen an improvement in air quality in Toronto, and over that same time, air quality in Edmonton has certainly not improved," Brauer said.

"And there's some indication that in recent years it may be getting worse."