The high price of bad air

🕔Nov 19, 2007

In our backyard, my three-year-old son is learning to grow zucchini, sunflowers, nasturtiums and sweet peas. There is only one problem with this garden, and that is the blast of rotten-egg-smelling fog that greets us as we open the back door first thing in the morning.
They will likely call another air quality advisory today—I can tell by the hazy look of the horizon. “Young, old, and those with respiratory conditions are cautioned to stay indoors today.”
This smell has, for so many years, been known here as “the smell of money”—a quote often attributed to Premier W.A.C. Bennett as his response to residents’ complaints about the terrible odor when the city’s pulp mills opened in the 1960s.

Dubious distinction
Welcome to Prince George. This city has gained the dubious distinction of being a “bad air town,” with some of the highest pollutant levels in British Columbia. Our pollutants include: total reduced sulphur, sulphur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, ozone, carbon monoxide and particulate matter. The BC Lung Association’s 2007 State of the Air report positions Prince George as having the highest levels of PM2.5 (fine particulate matter with particles smaller than 2.5 microns, or about two one-thousandths of a millimetre) in the province.
This fine particulate—tiny bits of matter in the air—comes mainly from combustion sources (industrial operations, vehicles and wood smoke)—but it also comes from chemical reactions among pollutants and components of the atmosphere. Fine particulates pose significant concern to human health because they can bypass the lung’s defenses and deeply penetrate into lung tissue.
Prince George’s “bad air” reputation, and one-too-many air-quality advisories, led to a phone call I received from a friend. “Aren’t you sick of the air around here? Don’t you want to do something about it?” These words led to the formation of PACHA (People’s Action Committee for Healthy Air), a non-profit society whose primary goal is to advocate for better air in Prince George.
Since forming in 2006, we have learned that approximately 44 industrial operations currently hold air emissions permits in and around Prince George. This list includes three pulp mills, an oil refinery, a host of sawmills, wood product plants and chemical operations.

Easy on industry
Some of the existing permits provide large buffers so that the operations are unlikely to ever be out of compliance with their permits. In addition, the permits do not stipulate any adjustments to operations during bad air periods and air quality advisories.
There are, of course, other sources of pollution here, including traffic and woodstoves, but there is no question that industrial emissions make up a very significant portion of the pollutants in the city’s air.
The British Columbia Ministry of Environment has the responsibility to regulate air emissions of industries. BC’s Environmental Management Act defines “pollution” differently than “contamination.” Pollution is “the presence in the environment of substances or contaminants that substantially alter or impair the usefulness of the environment.” This law assumes that there will be a certain amount of contamination in our air and environment. But at what point is there enough contamination that we should call it “pollution?” And then what? These legal words dance around each other, creating ambiguity.
This law also allows certain emitting operations to release contaminants into the environment without any emissions permit whatsoever. For these non-permitted operations, aggrieved parties have no legal recourse. The law fails to clearly articulate a public right to clean air.
On this hazy day in our garden, the smell of money creeps stealthily through the neighbourhood as I take my young child to daycare, his colourful pack bright against his back. He is marching faithfully down the path ahead of me. On days such as these, I ask myself: does my son have a right to breathe clean air? Do any of us?

The right to breathe
Andrew Gage, a lawyer with West Coast Environmental Law in Vancouver, believes that our Canadian constitutional right to life, liberty and security of person means that the government cannot arbitrarily expose members of the public to health risks from environmental toxins. He argues that the precautionary principle should apply.
The precautionary principle is a moral principle that says: when there is an activity that could threaten human health or the environment, precaution should be taken, even before there is complete scientific proof that the activity is harmful. The principle rests on the idea that human understanding of natural systems is incomplete, and can be wrong.
In the case of an airshed as compromised as Prince George’s, the precautionary principle would require industry to prove that air pollution is not harmful, rather than the public having to prove that contaminants in the air we breathe are harmful. The issue is especially critical during air quality advisories, when pollutant levels are high.
PACHA has been informed by a local health official that Prince George’s population is too small to support reliable studies about the detrimental health effects of poor air quality. But medical research from elsewhere points to alarming health implications from the various pollutants known to plague our airshed: childhood asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, other respiratory ailments and heart disease—to name a few.
I visit a senior who is hooked up to oxygen, and she tells me she cannot go out today because she can’t breathe out there. A 2007 study of over 1,800 women in the US that identifies a correlation between long-term exposure to fine particulates and cardiovascular disease (and possibly death) gives me pause to wonder about this woman’s health status.

A shared problem
Poor air quality challenges various communities in northern British Columbia, including the Bulkley Valley and Quesnel, due in part to the industrial underpinnings of these areas economies. If we can envision that the right to breathe healthy air is a fundamental right, we can then collectively demand that government and business operators here significantly improve policies and practices that have such potentially grave health and environmental impacts.
Meanwhile, here in Prince George, a friend learns that her seven-month-old son has contracted asthma. We hear of families moving away altogether because of the air here and concerns for their children’s health.
And still we wait for improvements, while trying to “breathe easy” about raising our children here.
In the garden, my child’s zucchini and sunflowers in the garden have wilted now, giving way to the winter. We will plant more seeds next spring.

More information:

• BC Lung Association:
• On facebook: Join the “Air Quality” group to share comments & information with others concerned about air quality in their communities.