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Is Air Quality Affecting Your Health?

A U of T prof is looking at the relationship between traffic emissions, health and how close people live to major roads

January 11, 2013


Greg Evans, a professor of chemical engineering, has long wondered how Canadians would react if they could actually see air pollution, as happens in Asian mega-cities like Beijing or Mumbai, where the sight of blue sky has become a rarity.

By comparison, he says, Toronto’s air quality is relatively good and has improved since the Ontario government began phasing out coal-fired generators. But there are still many unanswered questions about the physical relationship between emission-related micro-particles in the air near major roadways and the incidence of chronic heart and lung conditions among those exposed to vehicle emissions. Indeed, about a third of all Canadians live within 200 metres of a busy arterial road, and thousands die every year from pollution-related illnesses.

Throughout the first half of 2013, Prof. Evans, who is the director of the Southern Ontario Centre for Atmospheric Aerosol Research, will deploy four sophisticated air-monitoring stations around Toronto as part of an innovative research partnership involving Health Canada, Environment Canada, and Ontario’s Ministry of Transportation and NSERC. The stations will be located at U of T, Toronto Island, near Highway 401 and one other site to be determined. (The equipment was procured with a $10-million grant from the Canadian Foundation of Innovation.)

The goal, says Evans, is to begin to build a map of street-level air pollution on and near major roadways, and then combine those results with epidemiological data about the burden of air-quality-related illnesses in the Toronto region. “We know that how much people are exposed relates to where they live relative to major roadways,” he observes. The question is how that exposure, when combined with other factors such as genetics, leads to undesirable health outcomes. “We’re trying to figure out how far one needs to be from the roadway to no longer feel the impact of the emissions.”

A third strand of Prof. Evan’s research is examining how tailpipe emissions have changed as a result of new engine technologies that are designed to improve fuel economy and efficiency.

The monitoring program will continue through the Pan Am Games in July 2015 in order to showcase the region’s air quality during the event. Prof. Evan’s team is also looking for volunteers who would be willing to have air quality instruments deployed for brief periods in their backyards. Those interested can visit http://www.socaar.utoronto.ca/Assets/SOCAAR+Digital+Assets/volunteer-SCULPT+study.pdf


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