The week my friend Steve died…

Steve was kind, loyal, athletic, funny, and wise; a good husband and father, and my friend for 50 years. He died last Wednesday, aspirating in his sleep, at the end of long and inevitably losing battle against a neurodegenerative disease called multiple systems atrophy. This disease trapped him in a body that no longer received motor signals from his brain, while his mind remained normal and his spirit stayed bright and strong. 

Sadly, the prevalence of neurodegenerative disorders is increasing, and we have no treatments to push back against their relentless, dreadful conclusions; loss of function, loss of independence, frequently including loss of mind, loss of life. 

Steve maintained his dignity when he could no longer feed himself and needed someone to wipe his mouth, and kept his pride when his friends pushed on his diaphragm so he could force enough air past his voice box for a word or two to be heard. The famous comedian Jackie Mason once stated, “It’s no longer a question of staying healthy. It’s a question of finding a sickness you like.” Steve would never have chosen this sickness. Nor would his family and friends who supported and watched what Steve had to endure. 

Air pollution is linked to neurodegenerative diseases 

Ironically, the same week that he died, there were several articles in the news that inadvertently heighten the significance of Steve’s illness experience and death, beyond the painful loss for his family and friends left behind. 

The first was that most major newspapers in the Western world announced that a new 104-minute documentary  was released online, and within one week had already racked up over 100 million hits on Chinese video sites. It reveals the dire state of air pollution in China and issues a searing indictment of the hapless bureaucracies that have crippled environmental enforcement. 

No one questions that China is one of the worst air polluters. As a condition of hosting the 2008 Olympic Games, the Chinese government had to agree to substantiallyimprove air quality. But it’s not just China. According to the World Health Organization,only 12 per cent of people live in cities that meet WHO air quality guidelines. Air pollution ranks among the top ten leading risk factors for mortality, and is responsible for the deaths of one in eight people around the world. 

My friend Steve didn’t live in China. But for the last 40 years, he lived in Toronto, where air pollution is currently estimated to give rise to 1,300 premature deaths each year. Over half of Toronto’s air pollution is emitted within the city’s boundaries, with the biggest local source being motor vehicle traffic. Steve’s home was in close proximity to the intersection of two major expressways. Is this mere coincidence? 

Neurodegenerative disorders are linked to air pollution. Studies in young adults have shown that air pollution is associated with pathological changes in the brain, like those seen in Parkinson’s. 

Which brings me to the next news item. Recently, we witnessed another train derailment in Ontario, the third this month. Two occured near Gogantic, totalling four in the past few years. Good thing that this disaster happened two kilometers outside of Gogantic, instead of in the middle of town, and that the plume of smoke drifted in the opposite direction. 

That same week, President Obama, who vetoed the Keystone Pipeline, stated that Canadian oil extraction is an extraordinarily dirty process, and he expressed his concerns about the impact on climate change. In support, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) supplied evidence that the pipeline would result in an additional 27.4 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalents released into the air annually, equal to the emissions of 7.8 coal-fired plants. Good for our American cousins. Once implemented, the plans could lead to the closing of hundreds of coal plants, in what the administration says will be a transformation of the nation’s energy economy away from fossil fuels and toward sources like wind and solar. However, they need to shut down their own coal burning plants; especially the ones in Ohio that continue to belch polluted air all the way to Toronto, contributing to the poor quality of air that my friend Steve breathed for the past 30 years. 

Last week the New York Times reported that although the EPA has proposed regulations to slash emissions from coal-fired power plants, the majority leader of the U.S. Senate is urging governors to defy the ‘clean power’ regulations. Why? According to Republican leader Mitch McConnell, “The Obama administration’s so-called ‘clean power’ regulation seeks to shut down more of America’s power generation under the guise of protecting the climate.” He added, “Don’t be complicit in the administration’s attack on the middle class.” The world talks about reducing emissions to save the planet. Which planet does Mr. McConnell live on? 

To paraphrase Jackie Mason, “It’s no longer a question of avoiding pollution. It’s a question of finding a method of delivery you like.” Should we continue to pollute ourselves with fossil fuels delivered by train or by pipeline? Or should we choose coal by air current? 

How much does it cost? 

Air pollution’s link with chronic disease and premature mortality has a financial impact on families with a high economic loss for society. According to Environment Canada, air pollution costs Canadians and the Canadian economy billions of dollars per year. We need to talk about this too. 

This year, Canadians will have a federal election; next year Americans will get to vote too. Politicians dwell on jobs and the economy. We need to bring the environment more into the political conversation.  Pollution does not just increase chronic illness and premature mortality,  it significantly impacts jobs and the economy as well. Putting the economy ahead of the environment is a poorly calculated choice. 

My buddy Steve no longer has the opportunity to choose.

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