Health Canada to tackle human health impacts of air pollution

Health Minister Pierre Pettigrew today announced the Government of Canada is allocating $1 million over the next year to fund cutting-edge research on the human health impacts of air pollution in support of the Georgia Basin/Puget Sound International Airshed Strategy, one of three pilot projects under the Canada-United States Border Air Quality Strategy.

"We are collaborating with our partners to safeguard the health of citizens on both sides of the border," said Minister Pettigrew. "We especially need to protect those most vulnerable to the harmful effects of air pollution, such as pregnant women and children. This research will help us determine the best approach."

Environment Minister David Anderson said, "This is an important step toward the commitment of both Canadian and U.S. governments to address air quality issues in transboundary airsheds. Because air pollution does not respect national boundaries, this will improve the health and environment for Canadians."

Health Canada is working with the British Columbia Centre for Disease Control, an agency of the Provincial Health Services Authority, and the Universities of British Columbia, Victoria and Washington to determine exactly how much air pollution individuals are exposed to in their day-to-day lives.

"This research will help us pinpoint the negative impacts of air pollution on our health and lead to a more informed understanding of air quality impacts on human health, particularly in relation to vulnerable populations," said Dr. Ray Copes, Medical Director for Environmental Health at the British Columbia Centre for Disease Control.

Researchers will use an innovative method developed by European researchers, in collaboration with Dr. Michael Brauer of the University of British Columbia, to determine exposure levels by postal code for the study area. In urban areas this represents less than one city block. The research team will consider factors such as measured air quality; population density; traffic data; emission sources such as local industry and wood smoke; prevailing weather conditions; and the topography of the land. All of this information will be then sorted by postal code in a computerized database so that health impacts in each local area can be compared to local air quality conditions. Previous methods of assessing human exposure to air pollution relied on sparsely located air quality monitoring stations, which do not accurately reflect exposure at the local level. This is because they do not take into account factors such as local traffic or small neighbourhood sources that might lead to a higher local concentration of pollutants.

Once this database of information on each postal code has been established, researchers will assess the impacts of air pollution on young children and births to women living in the study area. Birth outcomes and the health of children will be tracked using the B.C. Linked Health Database. The results of this study will show if there is a relationship between air pollution and adverse birth outcomes or respiratory disease in children.

While air quality in B.C.'s Georgia Basin and Washington's Puget Sound generally meets relevant standards, there is a pressing need to "keep clean areas clean" by anticipating and addressing the potential negative impacts of future growth in an area where the population is expected to increase from six to nine million by 2020. Recent research findings also show that air quality continues to have negative health impacts even when standards are met.

These new health studies will also contribute to the development of a cross-boundary strategy for coordinated airshed management and support governments during future international negotiations on improving air quality.

"Nothing is more important to our lung health than the quality of the air we breathe," said Scott McDonald, Executive Director of the British Columbia Lung Association. "This important scientific research will be vital to expanding our understanding of the health effects of air pollution, particularly in the Georgia Basin/Puget Sound International Airshed, and will provide credible guidance to decision-makers on future steps to ensure clean air in the region."

With this new human health impact research, Health Canada is continuing to provide strategic leadership in health promotion and disease prevention related to air quality. http://www.hc-sc.gc.ca

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