Smog, a deadly stew
What's in it: Ground-level ozone, nitrogen oxides, sulphur dioxide, carbon monoxide, volatile organic compounds and particulate matter, solid or liquid.
Main sources: Industry, vehicle exhaust and burning of fossil fuels, primarily from coal-fired plants.
How it's formed: By a reaction caused when toxins are baked by the sun.
What makes it deadly: The particulate matter - microscopic liquid droplets, soot, ash, dirt, dust, metal and pollen - makes its way deep into our lungs.
What studies say: There is no safe level of human exposure.
Smog kills. We know that. If the smog alert announced during the winter wasn't evidence enough that something is seriously wrong with the air we breathe, then the last 35 days of debilitating heat and smog have surely taught us that it's time to start changing the way we live. Council under Mayor David Miller has received high marks for its efforts to curtail smog - a B+ on the Toronto Environmental Alliance's 2004 report card. But we no longer have the luxury of being satisfied with modest initiatives. Here are 10 things the mayor needs to do to lift the cloud of smog hanging over T.O.
1 Restrict vehicular traffic downtown during smog advisories.
When Paris was choking to death under successive smog days in the fall of 1997, the city council quickly passed laws restricting vehicular traffic in the core to vehicles with three or more occupants. But successive T.O. councils have refused to impose any restrictions on cars in the core. Indeed, this council has gagged on token gestures like setting up pedestrian-only zones. And we call ourselves world-class. Why not a system whereby only cars with even or odd licence numbers are allowed into the core on alternate days?
2 Ban all truck and large diesel-powered vehicles in the core on smog days.
Diesel is deadly. It contains 100 to 200 times more small particles - the stuff that gets deep into your lungs - than gasoline engine exhaust. A number of studies, including one by the World Health Organization, have linked the carcinogens in diesel fuel to lung cancer, asthma and a host of other respiratory illnesses. Sulphur levels in diesel fuel are only now being reduced. But what about the flow of goods and services? Other cities have set up centralized delivery systems: trucks dump cargo at different points in the city, where it's picked up by a handful of trucks allowed into the core.
3 Make public transit free on smog days.
It works in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and New Jersey, but the TTC hates the idea because it hates anything that affects its bottom line, even if it might turn on hundreds of thousands of new riders to the wonders of public transit. There is a way to accommodate the TTC, by introducing an environmental surcharge/tax on parking tickets to help pay for the free transit. The TTC wants a ridership growth strategy? This is it.
4 Ban the use of gas-powered lawn and garden equipment and all City fuel-fired street work on smog days.
Lawn equipment may be small, but its use contributes a shocking 20 per cent of volatile organic compound emissions and 23 per cent of carbon monoxide emissions. That's nothing to sniff at.
5 Ask businesses to adopt a casual dress policy on smog days.
It may seem trivial, but literally thousands of offices in the downtown core have their A/C cranked to keep employees in seasonally inappropriate business attire from overheating. In some buildings the A/C is so high that employees have taken to putting space heaters under their desks. Allowing shorts and Ts and raising the temp a few degrees would cut smog-causing emissions by the tonne.
6 Charge tolls on the Don Valley Parkway and the Gardiner.
Most motorists won't mind, and if they do, screw 'em. They've been getting a free ride for too long. The fact is, vehicles are the single largest source of air pollution. And most of those rushing down the DVP and Gardiner are carrying one person - the driver. It's time they were made to pay for the environmental damage they cause. For those who must drive, car-pooling could be encouraged by making high-occupancy-vehicle lanes on the DVP and Gardiner toll-free. It's an idea whose time has come.
7 Expand the bike lane network - now.
The city's Bike Plan has a serious flat, a fact the Toronto Cycling Committee acknowledged recently before asking the city to step up its efforts to build more bike lanes. The sad fact is that a mere 59 kilometres of the 485 promised by the Bike Plan have been completed. But the city needs to build bike lanes that are separated from traffic by boulevards or other physical barriers to encourage those who won't cycle to work because it's too dangerous.
8 Make identifiable neighbourhoods pedestrian-only zones.
Toronto has a Pedestrian Charter, which is really just about building more sidewalks. But it's time for council to show real leadership by following through on its promise to set up pedestrian-only zones across the city. Council approved a plan, but more recently right-wingnuts on council have been squawking about businesses seeing their bottom line hurt. So why are they so successful everywhere they're tried? Time to teach citizens that cars can't penetrate every expanse of public space.
9 Increase the number of bylaw officers to ticket motorists who idle.
Idling is a serious problem in the summer, but the city is loath to ticket lawbreakers, especially on very hot days - even if they can catch up with them. Only six bylaw enforcement officers were assigned to ticket idlers during a recent blitz. That's just not good enough. More anti-idling signs should be posted and more officers hired. On a related subject, parking fines in the core should be upped significantly.
10 Think green
Toronto promised to buy 25 per cent of its electricity from green power sources in 2004 but actually purchased zilch. We're doing a bit better when it comes to purchasing city vehicles using biodiesel and low-sulphur fuel, but four years after promising a formal Air Quality Strategy, none has transpired.
Smog by the numbers
Number of smog advisories in all of 2004 14
Amount of air pollutants and gases spewed by an average light-duty vehicle every year Five tonnes
Level at which health experts say ground-level ozone is a hazard 15 parts per billion
Average ground level ozone in Toronto 25 parts per billion
Allowable level of sulphur in gas and diesel fuel in Ontario 579 parts per million (although sources say the government is set to announce a major reduction)
Allowable level in the U.S. 30 parts per million
Percentage of Toronto hospital admissions related to ozone after a smog day 13 per cent
Number of Toronto residents admitted to hospital each year because of air pollution 6,000
Amount Toronto hospitals spend each year treating victims of air pollution $128 million
Amount air pollution costs Toronto's economy in lost productivity each year $130 million
Amount the province would save in yearly health care costs if it acted on the Ontario Medical Association's recommendations to improve air quality $1.2 billion
Amount by which smog slows the growth rate of farm crops and vegetation 40 per cent
Amount by which the weight of fruit is reduced when exposed to smog 15 per cent
Proportion of electricity the city promised to buy from green power sources last year 25 per cent
Percentage city actually purchased 0