Report raises pollution concerns for homes near highways - Now Toronto

April 29, 2014
Ben Spurr
Now Toronto

Board of health wants to study design guidelines for residential buildings near major thorough fares

Roadwork that started Monday on the Gardiner Expressway is expected to last for two years and drivers are already fuming at the snarled traffic, but a new city report shows that gridlock is doing more harm to your health than the stress of a longer commute.

According to a Toronto Public Health report released earlier this month, motor vehicle emissions are the biggest contributor to air pollution causing an estimated 1,300 premature deaths and 3,550 hospitalizations every year. Traffic-related pollutants are the cause of an estimated 280 of those deaths, and 2,090 hospital visits, the report says.

Thanks to government environmental policies enacted over the past decade, the figures are actually down from an estimated 1,700 premature deaths and 6,000 hospitalizations in 2004.

Regardless, Heather Marshall of the Toronto Environmental Alliance says the report is still worrying.

"It's still a serious issue," says Marshall who works with the DeTOx Toronto Campaign promoting pollution prevention. "Thirteen hundred people dying prematurely every year because of air pollution in our city clearly sends a signal that we can do more."

The report, titled the Path to Cleaner Air, was endorsed Monday at a meeting of the board of health. It will go to council next month.

The study determined that areas closest to highways or main thoroughfares have markedly worse air quality for substances like nitrous oxides. Separate studies of local air quality in South Riverdale and Etobicoke-Lakeshore found that ambient air pollution and related health risks from carcinogens like benzene and 1,3-butadiene were highest near major highways.

Yet downtown, there are condo balconies practically within touching distance of the six-lane Gardiner. The phenomenon will only increase as Toronto's population grows and efforts to densify the downtown continue.

Although the elevated health risks are still relatively small, Medical Officer of Health Dr. David McKeown believes it's time to explore rules that govern building residential developments close to busy roads.

“Anyone who's near a major thoroughfare, one of the big highways or one of the large busy roads, is going to experience more air pollution than someone who's farther away,” he says. “We need to reduce air pollution everywhere across the city, but there are perhaps some design approaches which can be used for those communities."

As examples, the report notes that airflow around apartment buildings should be optimized, intake vents should face away from busy roads and any area where people spend a lot of time should be built far from traffic.

The report suggests Toronto look to Halton as an example. The municipality has created draft guidelines that would mandate an assessment if a sensitive development is within 150 metres of a highway or 30 metres from a major arterial.

One of the recommendations approved by the health board Monday asks that Toronto's city planner work with other departments on options for similar guidelines here.

Some of the report’s other recommendations are aimed at shifting people away from their cars. They ask that the province allocate more funds to transit and active transportation infrastructure and request including walking and cycling in the planning for all Metrolinx transit projects.

Board member Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam said that the recommendations are based on principles that would make Toronto healthier and more sustainable. The question is whether the city will actually follow through.

"What I find frustrating at times … is that those principles are often tossed to the sideline," Wong-Tam said.

The councillor is speaking from experience. She’s currently trying to convince the city to shut down traffic on stretches of downtown arteries four Sundays this summer, making them pedestrian- and cycle-friendly for a new street festival. The idea has been met with fierce resistance from some factions at City Hall.

"We come back to the very conventional thought that we have to foster the movement of vehicles first and foremost in the city. So once again we reinforce our car dependency," Wong-Tam said. "Those who are higher-ups don't seem to be paying attention."