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

Toronto Hoof and Cycle Courier Coalition






The Air Pollution Crisis and Its Effects on Bicycle Couriers

A report by the Toronto Hoof and Cycle Courier Coalition
May 1999

prepared by joe hendry

Executive Summary


1. Introduction
2. What is smog and what causes it?
3. Why are couriers at risk?
4. Health effects of smog on couriers
5. What is a safe level of pollution?
6. Diesel exhaust causes cancer
7. Air Quality Advisory Days
8. Economic Impacts of Air Pollution
9. Who is Responsible?
10. Conclusions and recommendations


In recent years there have been many new compelling studies on the levels and effects of air pollution. At the same time there have been drastic cutbacks to the agencies responsible for the quality of this air. The purpose of this report is to examine the new evidence as it relates to bicycle and foot messengers in Toronto and what our governments are doing about it. Furthermore, as hosts of the second annual North American Cycle Courier Championships, June 5-6, 1999, the Toronto Hoof and Cycle Courier Coalition (THC3) felt it necessary to inform participants as to the risks and dangers associated with Ontario’s air. 

Ontario’s 23,000 doctors recently declared the quality of Ontario’s air a “public health crisis”  for all the province’s residents. This health crisis poses its greatest dangers to vulnerable groups such as children, the elderly and outdoor workers. The Toronto Hoof and Cycle Courier Coalition (THC3), representing Toronto’s bicycle and foot messengers, is deeply concerned about the effects of smog and pollution on bike and foot couriers. We are troubled by our city’s and our province's immediate and future responses to this crisis. The Coalition points to the disturbing trend that the caretakers of our environment have allowed the outdoor space of our city to become a dangerous work place. They have ignored the overwhelming environmental, health and economic impacts and their consequences on both the Coalitions’ members and the region itself. 

The Toronto Hoof and Cycle Courier Coalition maintains that Toronto City Council and the Government of Ontario have recklessly neglected the health and welfare of outdoor workers. New scientific studies show that there is no “threshold level for ground level ozone or particulate below which no health effects are observed."  This means that the health of bike messengers is constantly at risk. 

The province of Ontario continues to face many environmental challenges to which our governments have failed to respond. Ontario’s deteriorating air quality and increasing car volume and dependence jeopardizes the health and quality of life of many of its residents yet both the province and the city continue to promote policies that exacerbate the crisis.

As Toronto’s Environmental Task Force has noted “current public opinion polling reflects a growing awareness - and concern - for environmental issues. Two in three Toronto residents now believe that their personal health has been affected by environmental pollution. This is especially true of air quality: Torontonians view respiratory problems as the number one environmental concern for their health, even more so than cancer. 

Recently the City of Toronto resurrected the subject of smoking, the quality of indoor air and the health effects of such air upon restaurant patrons and workers. City Councilors are taking steps to improve the quality of indoor air through legislation. The province of Ontario launched a civil suit in US courts against American tobacco manufacturers to recover health costs caused by cigarettes. It's time attention was directed at outdoor air. The province acknowledges that at least 1800 Ontario residents die every year due to the air pollution crisis  yet the province does nothing. Should we sue the province for contributing to these deaths and damaging our health? 

According to Toronto’s Healthy City Office “after a smog day, 11-13% of hospital admissions are related to ozone.”  According to the Ontario Medical Association (OMA) about “1,400 hospital admissions each year in Ontario are caused by respiratory problems aggravated by particulate pollution.”  Smog is responsible for hundreds of thousands of illnesses in Ontario each year. In recent rankings Ontario was listed as the third worst region in North America for pollution. The Windsor -Quebec corridor (Southern Ontario) has the worst air quality in Canada. A national study determined that Toronto's air is the dirtiest of all major cities in Canada. "Virtually every Canadian is exposed to ozone levels that could kill, or at the very least, put them in hospital."  Yet provincial and municipal authorities continue to implement policies that put the health of Ontario residents, (especially bike couriers) at greater risk. 

The province withdrew all funding of public transit and the Mayor of Toronto successfully campaigned for a hike in transit fares even though Toronto's Transit system is the least subsidized system in North America. The provincial minister of transportation displays complete ignorance of the transportation problems faced by Toronto with statements such as "Toronto is too dependent on transit."  The Mayor recently called upon all Torontonians to help clean up the city. At the same time it was announced that Toronto bought two new diesel powered street cleaners to help with job . Diesel fuel is one of the dirtiest available and is notorious for its cancer causing agents.  Uninformed statements and policies by elected officials demonstrate a complete neglect of our air quality and a lack of leadership in the region. 

Ontario's "sulphur levels in gasoline and diesel are among the highest in the developed world at 579 parts per million (ppm) in gasoline and diesel fuels of 2620 ppm off-road . In the United States, President Clinton recently announced emission standards of 30 ppm for gasoline . California already has these emission standards. In Ontario the provincial government has done nothing except gut our ability to protect our environment leading to a decline in our health and putting undue pressure on our health care system. It is clear that the current health care crisis facing Ontario is directly linked to the pollution crisis. 

Unless our governments act quickly to address this health and environment crisis vulnerable groups such as bike couriers will be left with no choice. Messengers will be forced to gain protection and recover the damages that they have incurred through the courts. The Toronto Hoof and Cycle Courier Coalition urges all groups representing those most at risk from smog to document, compile and quantify damages to their members so that we all may recover our losses.


The term “smog” comes from the words “smoke” and “fog” and it refers to the “chemical soup” that blankets the region mainly in the summer. The main components of smog include ground-level ozone, nitrogen oxides, volatile organic compounds (VOC’s), carbon monoxide, sulphur dioxide and particulate matter (PM.) Smog is not emitted. It is formed generally on hot sunny days when the sun’s heat causes a chemical reaction with nitrogen oxides and VOC’s. This reaction results in the formation of ground-level ozone.

The major sources of the pollutants that make up smog are motor vehicles and coal-fired generating plants. Nitrogen oxides are emitted from the combustion of fuels, mainly from cars, buses, trucks and other transport vehicles but also from the coal-burning power plants that generates Ontario’s electricity.

Particulate matter is tiny solid or liquid particles. They are also emitted from the combustion of fossil fuels especially diesel and gasoline engines and coal-burning power plants. They include particles from construction-related sites and dust. Most studies concentrate on particles less than 10 micrometres (PM10) and less than 2.5 micrometres (PM2.5). These tiny particles are inhaled deep into the lungs and remain there. These particles are so small that two thousand of them could fit on the period at the end of this sentence.  Other hazardous air pollutants may attach themselves to fine particles, increasing their toxicity. 

About have of the pollutants attributable to smog in Ontario come across the Great Lakes from the United States.


According to all studies on air quality, children are more at risk to the dangers of air pollution. Some of the reasons that children are more vulnerable to these health effects include the fact that they spend more time outdoors, breathe faster than adults do and are engaged in more physical activity outside. Bicycle messengers share these same risks and others. They too spend more time outdoors, breathe faster and engage in vigorous physical activity. Messengers have already lived through an entire childhood exposed to smog and its effects on their developing lungs. “Several studies have demonstrated that children living near major roadways have poorer lung function than those living in cleaner areas.” There are no studies on bike messengers but it is reasonable to assume that they have suffered similar effects.

According to the Air Resources Board, most people spend less than 2 hours each day outdoors . Most bike couriers spend 7 to 9 hours each day outdoors working with about 4 to 5 hours per day in traffic . Our lungs are not more than about 10 feet from an exhaust pipe for most of the day. It is known that the closer an individual is to the source of pollution the greater their exposure to that pollution. All messengers are familiar with the taste, smell, and choking of traffic exhaust that is spewed directly into our lungs. 

Messengers are outside at the time of day that is most dangerous, when the air quality is the worst. Much of the courier work involves a high level of physical exertion that requires a higher, more intense rate of breathing and a greater intake of air. As a result bike messengers receive higher doses of pollution at greater concentrations and frequency. 

Bicycle couriers work all day, year round in the midst of smog. Our lungs have minimal opportunity to recover from the effects of polluted air. We are chronically exposed to high doses of dangerously polluted air for long term, extended periods of time.


All of us have been affected by air pollution. Sometimes symptoms are displayed and sometimes they are not. The symptoms of the effects of pollution include coughing, wheezing, irritation in the airways, rapid or shallow breathing, discomfort when breathing or general discomfort in the chest.  Individuals who are exposed to high levels of air pollution often find that their symptoms of smog exposure disappear over time. However smog continues to cause lung damage even after the symptoms are gone. Chronic exposure to air pollutants can reduce lung function permanently. 

Studies show that air pollution aggravates lung infections and reduces the body's ability to fight infection. Reduced lung function and increased lung inflammation results in reduced exercise capacity. Research has shown that "there is an association between increased lower respiratory tract disease (e.g., acute bronchitis, pneumonia), cardiac disease and air pollution."  Asthma is much more serious when exposed to air pollution. Studies also show that "individuals may be affected by air pollution without displaying symptoms.” 

A an autopsy study on 107 young accident victims, from the ages 14 to 25, in Southern California, showed evidence of lung disease. The lungs of 104 of the 107 (97%), displayed signs of “chronic lung disease, including low-level bronchitis, chronic interstitial pneumonia, and an unprecedented rate of severe chronic inflammation of the respiratory bronchioles.”  Few of these subjects had shown any signs of breathing disorders before they died. One of the researchers commented that the subjects “had lungs of older people.”   Air pollution is highly suspected of causing premature aging of the lungs. 

For sensitive individuals, any increase in air pollution, no matter how small, can cause underlying illnesses to become more severe. These effects may result in increased visits to a doctor or emergency room, an increase in medication use, admission to hospital, or even premature death." 

The profession of a bike messenger is physically demanding. Most couriers are in excellent physical shape. However this does not protect us from the effects of smog. In a recent study 17 world class cyclists were exposed to varying levels of ozone while exercising. They became weaker, their endurance decreased by a third and their lung function by a quarter.

Other studies show "even healthy outdoor workers show a measurable decrease in lung function when exposed to low-levels of ozone."  A study of berry pickers in the Fraser Valley of British Columbia revealed that "even for individuals living and working in areas of relatively low ambient ozone concentrations (13 to 84 parts per billion), ozone exposures were substantial enough to be associated with a decrease in lung function during the day."  This impairment of the lungs continued until the next day even though symptoms were not displayed. 

According to the Ontario Medical Association’s review of research on pollution, individual reactions to pollution will vary depending on many factors. Some people are more sensitive than others are. Furthermore a person’s reaction depends on the level of pollution, the degree of exposure and the level of activity.  Because couriers work outside we have greater exposure. Repeated or chronic exposure leads to more health effects because “once an individual begins to react to a pollutant, this reaction becomes established and recurs with further exposures.” 

Evidence clearly demonstrates that long term exposure to smog is not only associated with decreased lung function but also city specific mortality rates. A U.S. study, the "Harvard Six Cities Study" showed that mortality rates increase consistently with air concentrations of particles less than 2.5 micrometres (PPM2.5) in size. 

According to the World Health Organization evidence is increasing for a link between childhood cancer and motor vehicle exhaust. It is believed that this may be due to benzene exposure. Benzene is a known carcinogen that is present in motor vehicle exhaust. The threat from benzene exposure to couriers is serious. It is likely that long term exposure will result in the deaths of bike messengers due to cancer. 

It is clear that smog kills and it is clear that the dangers of smog are among the greatest toward bicycle messengers who perform athletic endeavors outdoors, in the downtown core on a daily basis.  Government standards are guidelines must protect against the chronic exposure that threaten bike couriers. Currently they are set to protect the risks from short-term episodes.


Recent studies have determined that current standards for safe levels of air pollution are inappropriate. Current levels of pollution are "so lethal that even the lunchtime jogger may be taking chances by running outside,"  and there does not appear to be a threshold level for ground level ozone or particulate below which no health effects are observed. 

A new federal study reported that ground level ozone is a health hazard at "concentrations less than one-fifth of the current federal guideline."  It says "statistically significant adverse health effects from ozone start at 15 parts per billion (ppb)." The current federal guideline is 82 ppb. For every increase in ozone of 10 ppb visits to the hospital increase 8.5% 

Another report on particulate matter determined that government standards for the microscopic particles are set at unsafe levels. Both PM10 and PM2.5 must be cut province wide to protect health. Ontario's current interim guideline for the PM10 is set at 50 ug/m3 (micrograms per cubic metre) but the report states that both federal and provincial experts agree that a level of 25 ug/m3 is needed to protect human health. 

The report also characterizes particulates as the "most critical health and environmental issue of the decade." However spokesmen representing industries whose profit margin would be affected by such standards are already complaining, sounding much like the tobacco companies of the 1980's. The province's biggest polluters are upset that the scientific experts found the evidence "remarkable, robust and compelling." 

In the United Sates, the Environmental Protection Agency recently modeled the concentrations of 148 hazardous air pollutants throughout the U.S. These airborne toxic agents, including benzene, formaldehyde, 1,3 butadiene and acetaldehyde, have received little attention in the current air quality crisis. When the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) calculated the health risks of these air toxics, they found that most Americans faced an air pollution cancer risk that was 100 times higher than Congress' goal. For some Americans the risk was 1,000 times higher.  Given that Ontario is the third worst region for pollution in North America, it is certain that Ontarians face similar if not worse cancer risks. For couriers this risk, at present, is incalculable. 

The study pointed to motor vehicles as the major cause of the cancer risk. "The numbers show that cars, trucks, and small businesses tend to be responsible for much more of the air's toxicity than is generally recognized."  Washington, D.C. showed a higher per-capita cancer risk than all of the 50 states, despite having no major industrial facilities. Motor vehicles were almost entirely responsible for its air toxics. 

Over the last few years more and more studies have concluded that the current guidelines and standards for virtually every kind of air pollutant are not tough enough to protect human health. The Toronto Hoof and Cycle Courier Coalition is adamant that emergency measures must be taken to protect our health. In fact for many couriers it may be too late. Eventually the health damage to messengers, from years of chronic exposure to these pollutants will be revealed. We are committed to recovering damages from every single government, corporation, and individual responsible for these unsafe levels of air toxics. 

Health Canada, along with provincial and federal agencies employs studies to monitor exposure levels to smog. Some of these studies involve the use of pollution-measuring devices carried by volunteers that enable researches to compare personal exposure levels measured at regional air monitoring sites. A personal exposure study of bicycle couriers is long overdue. The Toronto Hoof and Cycle Courier Coalition urges federal and provincial agencies to include messengers in such a study. We will advise our members to volunteer and we would offer any assistance for such a personal smog exposure study.


In Toronto, bicycle messengers inhale diesel exhaust all day. It is everywhere. Most of the city’s buses and trucks run on diesel. Diesel exhaust poses a major health hazard that can be linked to cancer, asthma, other respiratory diseases and death.

The reason diesel exhaust is so dangerous is because it "contains hundreds of constituent chemicals, dozens of which are recognized human toxicants, carcinogens, reproductive hazards, or endocrine disrupters. Diesel engine exhaust contains 100 to 200 times more small particles than gasoline engine exhaust.”  A study by the Health Effects Institute reported that “98 percent of diesel particles are less than 1 micron in size.”  Tiny particle matter are the most dangerous as they penetrate deep into the recesses of the lungs and remain there. 

Recently, compelling studies have prompted many scientists to proclaim diesel a cancer-causing agent. Diesel exhaust has been  “known to the State of California to cause cancer” since 1990. The National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (USA) and the International Agency for Research on Cancer both list diesel a “probable human carcinogen”. California’s independent panel of scientists “unanimously endorsed designation of diesel exhaust as a toxic air contaminant on April 22, 1998.”  In a July 31,1998 press release, the World Health Organization (WHO), proclaimed that "scientists attending the European Forum on Transport, Environment and Health, jointly organized by the European Regional Office of the World Health Organization and the Austrian Ministry for the Environment agreed that diesel exhaust contains a number of potential and proved carcinogens and contributes to the human lung cancer burden." 

Many studies have shown that diesel exhaust causes mutations in chromosomes and damage to DNA, processes, which are believed to cause cancer. A study by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and the Coalition for Clean Air concluded individuals who work around heavy diesel truck traffic bear “a disproportionate burden of the health risks are and paying the price for our society’s addiction to diesel engines.” These groups along with the Environmental Law Foundation “intend to take their campaign to the courts, initiating a series of lawsuits under California’s toxics initiative, Proposition 65.” 

“Short-term or peak exposures to diesel particulate matter, especially in urban settings such as “street canyons” are usually higher than monthly or annual average concentrations.” Researchers have shown that “street canyons” between high buildings in cities can concentrate diesel exhaust levels to as high as 8.8 ug/m3 from light duty diesel vehicles alone.” As a result  “we can expect high concentrations of diesel particles in urban streets where truck and bus traffic is high.” In 1998, monitoring of urban streets by the NRDC and the Clean Air Coalition confirmed concentrations of diesel exhaust above 50 ug/m3 for a significant portion of the monitoring period. 

The threat from diesel exhaust to messengers is serious. Professional bicycle couriers spend the entire workday riding the urban street canyons where the contaminants from diesel exhaust concentrate. Our exposure to unsafe levels of these air toxics is unacceptable. There exist no studies on bike messengers exposure to diesel exhaust but many other occupations at risk have been targets of studies. 

There is overwhelming evidence from these studies of workers occupationally exposed to diesel exhaust revealing an increased cancer risk. Most of the over two dozen well-designed worker studies found lung cancer increases in those exposed to diesel exhaust for over a decade.” This risk has nothing to do with smoking. “The occupational studies consistently demonstrate that exposure to diesel exhaust for ten years or more does significantly increase the human incidence of lung cancer, and possibly of bladder cancers.” 

The Environmental Protection Agency, the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health, and the International Agency for Research on Cancer have all consistently agreed on the relationship between diesel exhaust exposure and lung cancer. Since cancers induced by diesel exhaust involve a latency period of a number of years between damaging exposure and development of cancer and since risk increases with duration of exposure, many couriers face a serious risk of developing lung cancer in the future. This type of cancer is deadly. The prognosis for lung cancer is not good. Less than 14 percent of victims survive five years after diagnosis.


A Smog Alert or Air Quality Advisory (AQA) Day occurs when the Air Quality Index (AQI) reaches a level of 50 or greater. In the province of Ontario this corresponds to an ambient air quality of 80 ppb for ground level ozone. Toronto’s “Smog Alert Response Plan” for these days results in public advisories about the dangers posed by the air quality and the government recommends that Torontonians refrain from physical activity and long periods outdoors. Environment Canada advises people to reduce the amount of time spent outdoors and avoid exercise, particularly in the afternoon. Health and Welfare Canada suggests avoiding exercising near heavy traffic areas, at least during rush hour. 

According to the best scientific advice, it is not safe for bike couriers to work on smog alert days. Furthermore new studies have determined that the ambient air quality criteria should be set at least 25 ppb for ozone and not the current 80 ppb. Under this criteria, practically every day in Toronto qualifies as an "Air Quality Advisory Day" and the health and medical community would advise that it is never safe for bike messengers to work in Toronto.

Bicycle couriers don't have much choice. We must work on AQA days. Messengers are paid on a piece work basis. If we don't work, we don't get paid. Government agencies have made it impossible for couriers to stay home on days that are dangerous to our health. 

Couriers work hard for every cent. We are forced to fight for our rights at every turn. Although messengers are employed by one company, these firms do everything they can to disguise the employment relationship. The International Labour Organization has allowed employer representatives to prevent the ILO from agreeing on an international convention on disguised employment and contract labour. When it comes to the employment standards act, the Ontario government is lax towards the messenger industry. We do not receive time off for lunch. There are no sick or extended health benefits. We don't receive payment for statutory holidays, overtime or vacation. Couriers don't receive employment insurance unless we go through a long process of fighting to be classed as employees and virtually all couriers are unaware of their rights or the process to achieve them. Although bike couriers are covered by workers compensation, it's kept a quiet secret and most couriers are informed to the contrary. We are charged for the use of our radios, pagers and phones even on days we cannot work. 

Despite a court ruling that couriers can claim a portion of their food as a tax deduction for fuel, Revenue Canada continues to do everything in its power to disallow the deduction depriving messengers of compensation for these costs. Canada Post fails to enforce the Canada Post Act, allowing courier companies to charge less than the legal limit. Since couriers' incomes are based on these charges, messengers must work longer and harder to make the same money we made years earlier. 

It is apparent that government agencies make it much more difficult for messengers to stay home on smog alert days. If a courier did stay home and informed their company that the air was too dangerous to work, that messenger would likely be fired on the spot. 

The Toronto Hoof and Cycle Courier Coalition points to the seriousness of this situation and stresses Air Quality Advisory Days present a pollution crisis that governments have failed to address. On these days the province and the city must take important steps to offer incentives for cooperation by residents and impose serious penalties on polluters who cause environmental degradation. 

According to the Government of Ontario’s own 1998 “Smog Rover Reports” eight out every ten cars contain only the driver.  Since about 66% of Nitrogen Oxides (NOx) and about 93% of Carbon Monoxide (CO2) in the city comes from motor vehicles, the greatest opportunities to quickly improve smog involve targeting car usage and volume. 

Other cities around the world have faced similar air quality problems and shown leadership in confronting them. In the fall of 1997 Paris, France had a smog crisis for many days. They responded by passing legislation limiting cars in the city. On October 1, only cars whose license plate ended in an odd number were permitted to drive in the city. Cars with three or more passengers were also allowed. After limiting cars for one day the smog dissipated and the crisis ended. 

The city of Tulsa Oklahoma responds to Ozone alert days by providing free transit service, which encourages residents to leave their cars at home. New Jersey recently announced a transit discount pass to be distributed on ozone alert days. 

The Toronto Hoof and Cycle Courier Coalition urges Toronto City Councilors and their provincial counterparts to act quickly concerning Air Quality Advisory (AQA) days. There exist many feasible opportunities for legislators to consider including but not limited to:

  • offer free transit on AQA days;
  • reduce speed limits on all GTA highways and expressways on AQA days
  • ban all large diesel powered vehicles in the downtown core;
  • establishing car free zones in the regions most vulnerable to smog;
  • limit the volume of cars permitted to enter the city by legislating emergency car pooling and preventing single occupancy vehicles from entering the downtown core;
  • ensure that polluters pay for some of the damage they cause by charging user fees on certain roads (especially the Gardiner Expressway and the DVP) which would be increased on AQA days
  • introduce an environmental surcharge/tax on all parking tickets in the city (to help pay for the free transit);
  • double all fines for parking and environmental violations on AQA days
Toronto must not only reaffirm a commitment to enforcement of its idling control by-law but it must amend the by-law to remove the exception on very hot days. The exception on cold days at least makes a little sense, as heat is a necessity for cars. However air conditioning, in cars, is a luxury not a necessity. Air conditioners damage the ozone layer and the hot days that are exempted by the by-law are the very days that qualify as AQA days. 

The best solution for AQA days is for Toronto to reduce smog all year round. Proactive long term reductions traffic volume will ensure that Toronto has no AQA days to which emergency short term reactions are necessary. 

The governments of Ontario and Toronto must make the health and safety of outdoor workers such as bike messengers a priority over the convenience of those who are more protected against the effects of smog.


Air pollution exacts many costs on the residents and taxpayers of Ontario. An estimated 1,800 to 6,000 deaths per year , the 1,400 hospital admissions per year, the increased cases of asthma and bronchitis, the lost work days, school days and the decline in quality of life for children, the elderly and outdoor workers. The costs of pollution are everywhere. Acid rain, crop damage global warning, changing weather patterns and their associated costs present an enormous burden on the taxpayers of the future. 

According to Environment Canada the smog problem costs major Canadian cities about $10 billion annually. In Ontario it is estimated that damage to the ozone layer directly results in $70 million per year in crop damages. If Ontario acted on the OMA's recommendations to improve air quality, it could save taxpayers anywhere from $398 million to $1.2 billion in health care costs attributed to mortality and morbidity alone.

Motor vehicles cause many of the health costs related to smog. They also cost us in other ways too. The unchecked increase in car usage and volume has forced the Ministry of Transportation for Ontario (MTO) to spend $1.2 billion in the last two years just to maintain highway infrastructure.  It is estimated that traffic congestion in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) costs Ontario’s economy $2 billion a year in time delays and reduced productivity.  A 1997 study of 37 world cities “showed that cities with more balanced transportation systems are doing better economically than those that are more auto-dependent, where traffic congestion is undermining economic productivity.” 

There are additional costs to bike couriers. Messengers are paid by delivery. Our income is directly related to our output and our output is directly related to our health. If a messenger is sick that messenger does not get paid. The higher the smog levels the more stress and damage on the lungs of messengers. This means our bodies must work harder and it means we are unable to work as fast or as long as normal. 

Bicycle messengers rely on their skills to keep them alert and safe in traffic. A recent study determined that Toronto's drivers are the worst in the country. Riding a bike in the midst of these drivers with inflamed lungs and coughing and wheezing can be dangerous. Smog increases the messengers' risk to injury from traffic. 

By not addressing these problems and their causes, all levels of governments have amassed huge environmental and health care debts that future governments will be forced to repay with tax hikes. Vulnerable groups such as bicycle couriers, outdoor workers, asthmatics, children, the elderly and people with respiratory problems will certainly bring lawsuits in the future against governments and corporations as a result of their suffering. 

In 1997, over 2800 North American economists, including 300 Canadians, signed a statement acknowledging that many potential policies exist to reduce emissions for which the total benefits far outweigh the total costs. 

Financial institutions, credit rating services and Ministers of Finance should consider these costs and the health and environment debt when making projections. Investors are at risk from the burden of these costs and the potential damages from lawsuits. Investors must be informed of this financial risk.


Air pollution is caused from a variety of sources. The two worst sources are related to coal fired power plants and motor vehicles. These industries bear major responsibility for the damages caused by smog but all levels of government (especially the provincial government) are equal partners in this crisis. The short sightedness and lack of vision by government demonstrates a complete void in leadership at the top levels from which all Ontarians will suffer. 

The provincial government has the most jurisdiction over smog and it is this government that has failed its people the most. The ministries of health, transportation, energy, economic development and municipal affairs have avoided all opportunities to deal with the smog problem. The Ministry of Environment (MOE) has been gutted by a 40% budget cut and has ignored its own responsibility for air quality, relying on out of date guidelines that it hopes will lead to voluntary compliance by major polluters.

Ontario's current lack of leadership and neglect of air quality has provoked a threatened lawsuit. Environmental groups and the mother of an asthmatic child have demanded an independent investigator look into accusations that the provincial environment ministry is breaking its own pollution laws. "We knew the Harris government's air management program was unhealthy, but now we know it's also illegal," said Christine Elwell of the Sierra Club of Canada. 

The Toronto Hoof and Cycle Courier Coalition notes that the Ontario government's deplorable record on the environment left it vulnerable to such a lawsuit. We support the demand for an independent investigation and we are currently contemplating our own legal action against the provincial government. 

The environment groups charge that:
by permitting air pollution levels which are killing Ontarians in the thousands, the MOE [is] in violation of the Environmental Protection Act (EPA). Section 14 of the EPA states: "no person shall…permit the discharge of a contaminant…that causes or is likely to cause an adverse effect." The definition of "adverse effect" includes "an adverse effect on the health of any person", or "harm or material discomfort to any person". Section 20 of the EPA states: "This Act is binding on the Crown [i.e. the Government]." 

Ontario Hydro (which is owned by the provincial government) is responsible for generating Ontario's electricity. Much of that electricity is generated by coal burning plants that emit many air toxics into the environment. Ontario Hydro's continued reliance on coal resulted in a 60% to 70% increase in emissions since 1996.  The Ontario government has plans to deregulate the Hydro industry allowing competition. However the government has not planned any emissions caps. Without these caps companies will increase their reliance on cheaper coal generated electricity and emissions will continue to rise at the expense of the health and the health care system of Ontarians. Coal burning has been shown to be a dangerous method of generating electricity. In London in 1952, hundreds of people died in a few days because of the contaminated air cause by coal burning. 

Our city and our province are becoming more dependent on motor vehicles. This dependence causes the greatest damage to the quality of our air. Although today's vehicles are cleaner they cause more pollution. The reason is usage. The number of licensed drivers in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) is reported to have doubled in the 1970’s and 1980’s.  Governments and automobile manufacturers have done nothing to promote responsible use of motor vehicles. 

The provincial government's policies have made it extremely difficult for Ontarians to use alternative methods of transportation. The Ontario government has abandoned all provincial funding for public transit. They have weakened land use regulations, which now encourage urban sprawl and decreased population density. These policies result in increased costs to provide public transit for municipalities while at the same time, place workers further from their places of employment. People have little choice but to drive their cars more often and further distances thereby increasing not only air pollution but also noise pollution and traffic accidents. The Ontario government also permits these cars to be propelled by the dirtiest gasoline in the developed world, with 579 parts per million (ppm) of sulphur. By comparison California's standard is 30 ppm.

What Ontario has done is sue American Electrical Power (AEP) in the United States for the cross border pollution that is blown in to Ontario. However this move to "vigorously defend the air" , (as Premier Harris claims), is laughed at by politicians, environmentalists and those in the power industry on both sides of the border. The Ontario government-owned Ontario Hydro emitted four times the U.S. legal limit of 1.5 pounds per mega-watt hour in 1998. In fact Ontario Hydro was forced to buy electricity from AEP because it had reached its legally allowed emissions for the year. Ontario Energy Minister Jim Wilson expects Ontario Hydro's emissions to be worse in 1999. He recently approved measures to increase Hydro imports by 50%.  AEP has to pollute Ontario's air just to produce the electricity that Premier Harris buys. 

The Harris government's other example of environmental leadership is the much publicized Drive Clean program. It was delayed for a few years but finally began in April just in time for an election call by Harris. However the program only applies to Toronto and Hamilton at present. The Environment Commissioner of Ontario (ECO) in her 1998 annual report states that the Drive Clean program will reduce "only a small amount of the smog-causing agents emitted by vehicles" and only if "identified weaknesses in the program are corrected." 

The Government of Canada has the influence and the tools to improve air quality but it too lacks the will to act. The Federal government promised to update the Canadian Environmental Protection Act six years ago but recently bowed to pressure from major polluters when they introduced the new changes. Christine Stewart, the federal Minister of Environment claimed "the object of the legislation is to protect environment and health. The object is not to put people out of business," admitting that the government allows death as a by-product of business. In addition the federal government cut $234 million dollars (about one-third) from the Ministry of Environment's budget. 

In his May 1998 annual report, the federal Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable development, Brian Emmett condemned the government of Canada for its failure to protect the environment. He noted that the government is not keeping its promises and that “vision and leadership are two essential ingredients for tackling environmental challenges.”  Unfortunately these ingredients are lacking all levels of our government. 

The City of Toronto generally points to other governments for its pollution problems but it must accept part of the responsibility. The city could have a major impact on how its residents use their motor vehicles yet it does little. Because of the province's cut backs, the Toronto transit system is need of new funding. The Mayor of Toronto recently campaigned very publicly for an increase in transit fares as the solution. The Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) is the least subsidized system in North America. Users pay a greater share of the cost. However the new fare increase will result in decreased ridership and increased pollution by motor vehicles. The THC3 finds the Mayor's position to be hypocritical and cowardly. The use of motor vehicles is the most heavily subsidized means of transportation yet Mayor Lastman failed to support a more user pay system for cars. 

Toronto must implement user fees for major expressways with the revenue directed toward funding the TTC. Car usage is the most serious pollution problem because it is so inexpensive and subsidized by property taxes. User fees would steer some drivers to transit making the system more financially secure and improving the air quality at the same time. 

Making less space available for parking will also affect how many people drive. Toronto is filled with parking lots. It is disheartening to constantly watch classic architecture demolished in favour of new parking lots. Less parking spaces would mean a greater cost to park that would encourage drivers to choose other transportation options. 

Although government has failed in its responsibilities to protect our air, it does not relieve industry from its own responsibility. Even though oil companies are legally permitted to produce gasoline with a sulphur level of 579 ppm, scientific evidence proves that this level is not safe enough to protect us. Oil companies bear a moral obligation to produce a safe product. The THC3 is convinced that this obligation would be upheld in the courts, leaving oil companies to pay for the damages caused by their neglect. 

Automobile manufacturers also have a moral obligation. Although emissions systems have improved they break down. Automobile manufacturer's are aware that car usage and dependence is the most serious pollution problem in urban environments yet they promote policies that make other modes of transportation less effective. The Consumer Response Council recently handed down a decision that resulted in General Motors pulling a TV ad that was deemed to be "a demeaning... derogatory portrayal" of an identifiable group. GM referred to "lunatic couriers" in the ad . Automobile manufacturers flood urban environments with more cars than is safe. The auto industry knows that the sheer volume of the cars in urban areas means that the air will not be safe for vulnerable groups such as bike couriers. These "negligent marketing practices" cannot be tolerated. The THC3 believes that auto industry must be held accountable for the damage that their products cause when the users of those products are merely using them in the way that the manufacturers encourage them to be used. 


The Toronto Hoof and Cycle Courier Coalition recognizes that air pollution is a complex problem that requires many groups working together to find long term solutions. Furthermore all levels of government must rediscover their missing leadership and vision in dealing with these problems. The caretakers or Ontario’s air have been reckless and negligent with this vital resource. Air pollution is a health crisis for all of Ontario that has serious implications for the environmental, health care and financial systems in the province. Failure to act quickly to protect the health of Ontarians will expose our governments, corporations and economy to unacceptable financial risk from extraordinary lawsuits and increased expenditures. Our governments must move away from voluntary measures on air pollutant emissions toward a system of standards with strict enforcement. 

Credit rating institutions should consider government and corporate “health debt” and “environmental debt” as these debts represent a financial risk to investors that must be considered. Exposure to possible lawsuits as a result of government and corporate environmental records must also be publicized.

The last few years has seen study after study point to the interconnectedness of smog and health yet all levels of government find it easier to do nothing than to act on overwhelming evidence. As our population ages it becomes more vulnerable to the health effects of smog and more studies will show an increase in both mortality and morbidity due to air quality. One of the key findings by The Ontario Medical Association  in its recent report is that this health crisis is “preventable.” 

More information about air quality must reach the public. More monitoring stations and more accurate monitoring stations are needed. Environment Canada, the Ontario Ministry of the Environment and media outlets must develop and publicize accurate and meaningful “Smog Forecasts” so that Ontarians may be informed of air quality. 

Every year asthma in children increases, new and stronger viruses infect our lungs and every year our lungs are exposed to more toxins in the air. Our lungs’ ability to fight these risks is diminishing at a time when new evidence points to unsafe air quality guidelines. 

For bicycle couriers the crisis is more extreme. Our exposure is chronic and excessive. New evidence confirms that diesel exhaust causes lung cancer and the street canyons where messengers work are the most dangerous areas. Yet Toronto has done nothing to protect messengers’ lungs from lung cancer. The THC3 urges Toronto to ban large diesel vehicles from these street canyons downtown on weekdays.

Both the Toronto City Council and the government of Ontario must move to end subsidies to motor vehicle transportation. Large and small motor vehicle users must pay a more realistic share of their full costs. User fees or road pricing must be used to pay for the “capital, operations and maintenance costs of road infrastructure, including bridges, tunnels, and restricted access highways.”  These fees should also cover the full costs of the roads including emissions, accidents and congestion. For this reason the provincial government must allocate a portion of the gasoline tax collected in Toronto to public transit. 

The Government of Ontario must begin to listen to its people. The Toronto Hoof and Cycle Courier Coalition recommends that the Government of Ontario implement the recommendations from the Ontario Medical Association Position Paper on Ground Level Ozone:

1. More stringent sulphur and nitrogen oxide emission limits should be enacted, including a province-wide SO2 reduction of 75 per cent from current cap levels, and a maximum allowable NOx emission limit of 6,000 tonnes annually from Ontario Hydro. 

2. New transportation sector emission limits should include California-level standards for light and heavy-duty vehicles, reductions from off-road engines, an expanded vehicle inspection and maintenance program, and tougher standards for sulphur-in-fuel content. 

3. The USEPA Administrator should be petitioned under Section 115 of the U.S. Clean Air Act to require reductions in U.S. emissions of SO2 and NOx which damage the health of Canadian residents and their environment. 

4. Physicians should advise patients about the risks of smog exposure, should support more health effects research on air pollution, and should advocate the development of air pollution-related health education materials.

Until our governments find the courage to lead, the THC3 urges all bicycle couriers in the province to visit the hospital emergency departments at the slightest sign of breathing difficulty. On AQA days it is recommended that all couriers go to emergency for treatment. Couriers should also inform emergency staff to do thorough exams as damage to the lungs occurs even when no symptoms are present.

Messengers should keep a detailed record of their health and the effects of smog upon it. Future lawsuits will require good evidence to ensure that couriers are adequately compensated not only for damages incurred but also for the unacceptable risk to which industry and government exposed us. 

The THC3 recommends that government and private health agencies incorporate bicycle messengers in a personal exposure to pollution study. Information gathered from such a study would not only benefit bike couriers but also all Ontarians.  It is expected that the data would shed light on what new dangers chronic exposure to various pollutants hold. Messengers are a diverse group with varied levels of time in the profession. We represent many different lifestyle choices with some varying levels of fitness. 

All groups at risk must work together to document and quantify damages so that future lawsuits may be undertaken to recover those damages from the major polluters and reckless legislators. 

The Province of Ontario and the City of Toronto have effectively made bike couriers the “canaries in a coal mine” concerning smog. The serious exposure to damages caused by these policies are intolerable and have left taxpayers vulnerable to class action lawsuits in the future, unless they act quickly to remedy the situation. We look forward to sincere commitments by all levels of government to address this crisis.

May 1999





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