August 14, 2008

Canadian deaths linked to bad air to hit 800,000 by 2031

The Canadian Medical Association is warning that the number of deaths related to air pollution is set to soar, with a cumulative death toll of 800,000 Canadians by 2031.

The vast majority of those deaths will be among people age 65 and older because they are more vulnerable to heart problems, the group said in a study released yesterday.

Association president Brian Day says the number of people in that vulnerable zone will grow as the population ages.

"We have a very high percentage of babyboomers who will hit 65 in the next three or four years and then keep hitting 65," he said.

The association says 21,000 Canadians, mostly seniors, will die this year from a combination of short- and long-term exposure to air pollution. It predicts the annual death toll will rise 83 per cent to 39,000 deaths a year by 2031. The majority will die from heart and lung conditions caused by years of breathing dirty air, the study says.

However, nearly 2,700 people will die from short-term exposure this year. The study predicts the number of deaths from short-term exposure will ramp up to 4,900 people a year by 2013.

Pollution is also expected to cost the economy and health-care system $8 billion this year in medical costs and lost productivity, the study says. By 2031, these costs will have accumulated to total more than $250 billion.

The Canadian Medical Association's estimates are conservative since the study assumed air pollution will not increase above current levels, Day said.

The American Medical Association said it does not keep figures on deaths caused by air pollution. Day explained that Canada is one of the first nations to track such deaths.

Asked how the doctors can be certain deaths from heart and lung disease are directly related to air pollution and not, say, smoking or a genetic condition, the association's technical adviser on health and environment said researchers have the tools to distinguish causes of death.

Ted Boadway added the study "still significantly underestimates the number of deaths because we don't actually take any other areas where air pollution does cause cancer in other areas of the body."

Prolonged exposure to air pollution damages the muscle cells in the arteries of the heart, causing them to harden, Boadway said. Meanwhile, short-term exposure to smog thickens blood, which is then more likely to clog arteries and produce heart attacks and strokes, he added.

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