Choking us to death - The Air Pollution Crisis and Its Health Effects on Bicycle Couriers

Toronto Bike Messenger Association





Smog is Choking Us To Death

Executive Summary

By Joe Hendry

In the past few years there have been many news headlines about compelling studies on the health effects of air pollution. The headlines, along with personal experiences, prompted the Toronto Hoof and Cycle Courier Coalition to investigate the new evidence on pollution as it pertains to bicycle couriers. Our findings are summarized the report “Choking us to death: The Air Pollution Crisis and Its Effect on Bicycle Couriers.”

What the evidence reveals is that Toronto’s air is not safe for bike messengers and the outdoor space of our city is a dangerous work place. Studies show there is no safe level of smog. Couriers spend all day outside working. Clean air is fuel for our engines. Smog not only makes it more difficult for us to work but it also has drastic long-term consequences for our health. Smog has been shown to cause irritations in the lungs such as coughing and wheezing and breathing discomfort. It also aggravates lung infections, reduces the capacity of the lungs and promotes premature aging of the lungs.  Air pollution is responsible for the large increase in asthma in recent years. It is also related to diseases such as bronchitis and pneumonia. Smog results in over 1400 hospital admissions annually in Ontario and it even leads to cancer and death.

According to the Ministry of Environment and the Ontario Medical Association smog is responsible for at least 1800 deaths in the province every year and it may be as high as 6000 deaths. The OMA has gone as far as declaring smog a public health crisis in the province.

Convincing evidence also points to a need for tougher pollution standards. The current allowable levels of ozone and particulate matter are disturbingly high. Studies show that the ozone guideline is set at more than five times the limit needed to protect our health. The guideline for particulate matter is twice as high. New studies prove that diesel exhaust causes cancer but none of our governments have enacted new standards for diesel or diesel powered vehicles.

Although two out of three Torontonians believe their health has already been affected by pollution and in fact respiratory problems rank as their biggest health concern, governments have yet to act. The provincial government has drastically cut environmental spending and withdrew all funding for public transit. Under the Harris government Ontario has become a polluters’ haven. Regulations necessary to ensure our health have been dismantled and the province has even been accused of breaking its own pollution laws. There is overwhelming evidence that the government of Ontario’s record on air pollution is reckless and negligent. In fact our government’s policies have exacerbated the pollution problem rather than confronted it. The province has made it easier for the two worst sources of pollution to increase. Its policies toward coal-fired power plants and motor vehicles have directly influenced the health crisis and increased the deficit. The Harris government ruined the much-delayed Drive Clean program, as it was found to be ineffectual and not much more than propaganda for an election campaign.

The city of Toronto’s recent record on transportation is also deepening the crisis. The fare hike for public transit and the continued subsidy for motor vehicles will result in more smog and more health consequences for children, the elderly and bike couriers. Toronto’s failure to address Air Quality Advisory days and vehicles that spew diesel exhaust will have serious health implications for bike messengers including cancer and death.

The THC3 is calling for specific pollution exposure studies on bike couriers. We fear that even the new recommended pollution guidelines and standards will not be stringent enough to protect couriers. And we suspect there are many as yet undiscovered health risks attributable to pollution for bicycle messengers. It is imperative that individuals facing this level of health risk must be given as much information as possible.
The Toronto Hoof and Cycle Courier Coalition will not allow its members to be the regions’ canaries in the coal mine. Couriers are the most environmental friendly and energy efficient sector of society yet we are exposed to the greatest environmental health risks. At a minimum Ontario must implement the recommendations made by the province’s 23,000 doctors. Failure to act will result in our determination to be compensated through the courts. Messengers whose health has been affected and families of messengers who pass on will be encouraged to bring action against the major parties responsible for the unsafe level of contaminants in the air and the governments that permitted them.

Choking us to death: The Air Pollution Crisis and Its Effect on Bicycle Couriers

(formerly Toronto Hoof & Cycle Courier Coalition)

May 1999





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