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Fraser Institute study on the outcomes of shutting down Ontario’s coal-fired power plants

Jan 20, 2017

In 2005, the government of Ontario initiated a plan to begin the phase out of all coal plants and ultimately a ban on coal burning in the province – a phase out that The Lung Association-Ontario and other health organizations fully supported.

The process of shutting down coal fired generation plants received feedback from multiple stakeholders and was applauded by advocates from numerous sectors and industries, including from health, environment and energy.

The Lung Association was pleased to be instrumental in helping government make this monumental, and needed, decision. The last coal plant in Ontario was closed in 2014 and Ontario’s air quality has only benefited from those closures.

Recently, the Fraser Institute, a national research-centered organization based in Vancouver, issued a study on the ban of all coal plants in Ontario. Their study, “Did the Coal Phase-out Reduce Ontario Air Pollution?” concluded that the provincial coal ban only provided minimal benefits and has not provided the performance that was expected. The Fraser Institute argues that air pollution levels have only slightly decreased and that there has been an unfavourable impact on the economy.

The Lung Association – Ontario is of the opinion that the coal ban is imperative to both the lung health of Ontarians and for the preservation of the environment. The Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment (CAPE) and many other stakeholder groups have voiced similar concerns with the Fraser Institute article.

Many studies and reports have proven that environmental exposures, specifically air pollution, have a significant negative health impact on the population. Vulnerable groups, such as infants, the elderly and those with chronic lung diseases, are at a higher risk of adverse health outcomes when exposed to air pollution.

There are more than 2.7 million Ontarians living with lung disease who are all at a higher risk of coal burning exposure and other forms of pollution. We must continue to work to protect the lungs of all residents of Ontario.

Burning coal and coal emissions emit various hazardous pollutants and chemicals into the air. Such pollutants include:

  • Acid gases, such as hydrogen chloride and hydrogen fluoride;
  • Benzene, toluene and other compounds;
  • Dioxins and furans;
  • Formaldehyde;
  • Lead, arsenic, and other metals;
  • Mercury;•Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAH); and
  • Radioactive materials, like radium and uranium

These chemicals all have severe negative health and environmental impacts (American Lung Association, Toxic Air: The Case for Cleaning Up Coal-fired Power Plants, 2011).

Coal burning also produces particulate matter, which can directly impact individuals with chronic lung disease (American Lung Association, Toxic Air: The Case for Cleaning Up Coal-fired Power Plants, 2011). ) In addition, coal burning is a significant contributor of Sulphur dioxide (SO₂), emissions in Ontario. Coal-fired power plants accounted for nearly 23% of SO₂ emission in Ontario before the coal ban (MOECC, 2014).

Another issue that factored into the ban of coal burning in Ontario is the range of those that can be affected. Due to the particle nature of some of these chemicals, they tend to travel great distances via wind and weather patterns. For instance, it has been documented that acid gases and mercury can travel thousands of kilometers from their original source and can negatively impact both the health and environment of a distant community (American Lung Association, Toxic Air: The Case for Cleaning Up Coal-fired Power Plants, 2011).

The Air Quality Health Index (AQHI) is a measure of air quality specifically designed to measure the impact of air pollution on human health (To T, et al., BMJ Open 2015). The AQHI uses nitrogen dioxide (NO₂), fine particulate matter (PM₂.₅ and ozone (O₃) as measures of health impacts. The AQHI scale ranges from 1-10, with a higher number being associated with a higher health risk (Ministry of Environment and Climate Change, 2016). Studies have found that the higher the rating on the AQHI scale, the higher the amount of individuals using health services for chronic lung diseases (To T, et al., BMJ Open 2015). AQHI values were strongly associated with the use of asthma-related health services (To T, et al., Environmental Health Perspectives, 2013). Unfortunately, the AQHI does not track all of the specific pollutants that are found in coal emissions.

However, additional studies have been undertaken to review health care services utilization related to asthma in Ontario, including hospitalizations, emergency department visits and OHIP claims. Recent data from the Institute of Clinical Evaluative Studies (To T, 2017) illustrate that health care utilization related to asthma has been consistently decreasing since 2003.

The Lung Association recognizes the impact of air pollution on lung health, whether it be a result of coal burning, industrial emissions, vehicle emissions, wood smoke, or other forms of combustion.

The province of Ontario has been a leader in the elimination of coal and other clean air strategies that have resulted in some of the best air quality ratings in both Canada and around the world. The Lung Association remains committed to ensuring that all Ontarians can breathe easily. We shoulder this important responsibility by continuously advocating for better air quality and working with government and other partners to maintain clean air. The provincial coal ban was one crucial step in building a better breathing future for all of us.

George Habib
President and CEO
The Lung Association – Ontario