Federal, provincial, and local governments each have defined responsibilities in protecting the quality of our air and the quality and supply of water in BC communities and across the country.i Non-profit agencies and residents are also interested in contributing to projects that benefit air and water.
We can build upon the successful collaboration between health and planning sectors in B.C. to regulate and develop policies for healthy air and water, monitor and enforce standards, and develop creative models that work for the specific contexts of geography, size, and urban or rural settings.
Air and water quality is not just a health issue. The consequences of poor air and water quality ripple into many other areas, for example:
- environment: poor air and water quality can limit the growth of plants and vegetation and harm agricultural crops, wild areas, and animalsii
- quality of life: poor air and water conditions make a community less enjoyable to live in and can tarnish a community’s reputation as a great place to liveiii
- economy: a reputation of poor air and water quality can impact the nature-based tourism industry in BC. Productivity can suffer with reduced air and water quality (e.g., missed days of work due to pollution-related health problems)iv
What is this issue about?
Air pollution can seriously compromise people’s health and makes those who are most susceptible – which is usually related to age, physical condition, or socio-economic factors – more vulnerable.
Air pollution is not just a problem in big cities. Some of the worst air pollution in the province is in smaller centres. Examples of sources of air pollution that impact health outcomes include:
- emissions from vehicles
- contaminants from industrial activity
- dust from construction activities
- wood smoke from fireplaces, wood stoves and wild fires
- indoor air pollutants
In some cases, air pollution can be stopped or mitigated at its source with filters and technology improvements for industry and vehicles, and in other cases the impact on human health can be mitigated by designing our streets and buildings so that exposure is reduced.
The Province of B.C. commits to providing safe, accessible, and reliable drinking water sourcesv through regulations and collaboration with various partners, including regional and local governments and various agencies.
There are 3,300 water systems of various types and scales in B.C. About 90% of B.C.’s population is served by large municipal systems, with the rest served by a mix of public and private systems (e.g. improvement districts or private wells).
Health Canada estimates that unsafe drinking water is the cause of 90,000 illnesses and 90 deaths every year, the equivalent of 13 Walkerton E. coli contamination tragedies.vi These occur mostly in smaller rural and First Nations communities.vii
Within a local and regional scope, responsibilities to manage water resources and safeguard and improve water quality include:
- protecting drinking water sources to meet future community needs (e.g. with water quality guidelines and groundwater protection)
- protecting natural resources and watersheds
- upgrading and updating infrastructure for treatment and delivery of water in community water systems
- developing plans for water conservation and demand-side management
Why is air and water important for health and well-being?
The Canadian Medical Association estimates that as many as 21,000 Canadians die each year as a result of air pollution. This is nearly 10 times more than road user fatalities in Canada (2,200 in 2009). As well, health issues directly related to air pollution result in 620,000 doctor visits, 92,000 emergency department visits, 11,000 hospital admissions, and an annual economic impact of over $8 billion.viii
Even when Canadian air quality standards are met, people are still being exposed to air pollutants at levels that negatively affect health. The most vulnerable are those with existing chronic conditions (e.g. asthma, heart, and cardiovascular issues), elderly and young people, and people who spend a lot of time in or close to traffic (e.g, taxi drivers, police officers, people with long commutes).
Transportation is one major cause of air pollution. Motor vehicles burn pollutants that significantly affect human health. People are exposed to traffic pollutants both in close proximity to the road, and depending on where they are in the airshed, air pollution exposure partly depends on airflow and geographical factors.ix
Contaminants in outdoor air come from many additional sources, including other transportation sources (e.g., planes, marine traffic), industrial emissions, wood smoke from fireplaces and outdoors,x and dust from construction and pollution. Exposure to air pollution is linked with respiratory problems, impaired lung function, cardiovascular problems, some cancers, adverse pregnancy outcomes, and onset and exacerbation of asthma.
Indoor air pollutants range from minor irritants such as dust and animal dander to major irritants such as moulds and chemical vapours emitted from building materials and furnishings—which and are associated with a range of health problems from asthma to sick building syndrome.xi An indoor air risk to be particularly aware of is radon, which is the second leading cause of lung cancer.xii It is a colourless and odourless gas that tends to exist in northern areas, often undetected in homes. It is recommended for residents in radon risk areas to test their homes.
Safe drinking water is vital for human health, but is often taken for granted. Water quality testing is crucial to preventing the spread of water-borne disease and protecting people from chemical or other contamination. Water contamination can lead to major health issues, such as:
- gastrointestinal illness
- reproductive problems
- neurological disorders
Infants, young children, pregnant women, the elderly, and people whose immune systems are compromised because of AIDS, chemotherapy, or transplant medications may be especially susceptible to illness from some contaminants.
Safe recreational water (e.g., for swimming) is also a key element for a health, as it enables people to be outdoors and active in the water, directly connecting with their environment. Recreational water quality can be threatened by sewage, industrial effluents, agricultural runoff, urban stormwater runoff, animal feces, and oil and gas from powerboats and marinas.xiii
Well-functioning watersheds and a supply of water for communities that meets population growth are critical to long-term well-being and the sustainable existence of communities.
Why do air and water matter for local governments?
Local governments have an important role in air and water quality. There many actions that local governments can take to secure clean air and water that do not duplicate the work of other levels of government.
- Air: local governments can use planning (land use planning, siting, engineering, building, etc.), regulation, and community design tools to prevent residents’ exposure to air pollution.
- Water: local governments provide water services and related infrastructure for drinking water, wastewater treatment, and stormwater management. They also plan for the long-term water supply of the community and participate in regional watershed planning. Local governments play a large role in sharing information and educating residents about what they need to do to conserve water and preserve water quality.xiv