Toronto’s new crusade to clean up the air

Gabor Maté has a few words about breathing dirty air in his city.

“It feels like the London Breath,” says the vice-chair of Toronto Public Health. It’s the name given to the World Health Organization’s International Study of Air Pollution – known colloquially as the London Breath – which recorded the highest concentrations of fine particles in people in the British capital in 2012.

Around the world, people are increasingly breathing air that’s made worse by poor public transport.

In places like Delhi and Mumbai, as well as in South-East Asia and China, vehicles generate the most toxic air, according to The World Health Organization. It’s a reality that also hits cities across North America, and about a third of all Canadian cities have been identified by the Public Health Agency of Canada as being on the path to “air quality catastrophes.”

By the time you check into your hotel room on a summer day in Toronto, you’ll be surrounded by that fine particulate of smoke as well as the dust of the desert whoosh past you. And, as we have seen with toxic coal-fired electricity plants in Paris and Beijing, the smog can be so deep in the atmosphere it makes national newspapers.

“It is my contention that this is one of the worst places to live in North America,” Maté says. “It causes all sorts of health problems. There is no respite.”

Toronto has already achieved high levels of clean air thanks to the program it has in place to capture and contain emissions of the finer particles.

And, more recently, the city has upped its game by investing in green energy and electric buses, replacing oil-powered vehicles that for decades have been contributing to Canada’s highest mortality rate.

But that work won’t be finished any time soon. Poor urban planning has also made it harder to tackle for decades.

Imagine your house is made out of dirty wood, rotting leaves, broken nails or a pile of dead leaves, spilled coal, dirty gas, oven burners or anything you didn’t eat.

And imagine you have to go outside to breathe.

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