Less smog: cheaper health

Lisa Grace Marr The Hamilton Spectator- July 14, 2003.
McMaster study finds environmentally polluted areas have higher health-care costs

Ontario municipalities that invest in cleaning up the environment will see the benefit in lower health-care costs.

In addition, those areas which are more polluted will have higher health-care costs.

These are the conclusions of a provocative study led by Michael Jerrett, a medical geographer with McMaster University's Institute of Environment and Health.

"It shows what many people feel intuitively after the Walkerton crisis. Environmental pollution negatively affects our health-care system," Jerrett said.

The study is the first in Canada to examine the link between pollution and health-care costs. It recently appeared in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health. Jerrett is presenting a paper relating to his research at an international conference this week in England.

Jerrett, fellow McMaster university researchers John Eyles and Stephen Birch and University of Waterloo researcher Christian Dufournaud examined data on toxic pollution reported by industries to Environment Canada and all hospital and OHIP billings.

The billings covered areas such as surgeries, asthma, and cancer treatments.

They also pulled data from the 1991 census. The researchers divided the province into 49 areas and also examined spending on environmental protection.

Jerrett said the study, which took 10 years to complete, also removed several other factors which can affect health-care costs such as the levels of education, income and whether or not residents worked in a factory, for example.

In Hamilton, the amount of toxic pollution output is just above average at about 1,400 tonnes each year.

Local health-care costs at an average of $606 a person annually are higher than the provincial average.

Jerrett said the study looks at only the volume of pollutants, not the toxicity of pollutants that must be reported to Environment Canada.

Some of Hamilton's best-known pollutants, such as benzene, and dioxin, are among the worst.

Jerrett said most of the spending made in defence of the environment in the province is done through municipalities, particularly local public health units on such things as sewer and water works, waste management, emergency planning and recreational facilities.

Lynda Lukasik, an environmental lobbyist based in Hamilton, sees the study as ammunition for the fight to improve the environment.

"We don't even have a clear sense of the real health-care costs of poor air quality. You would assume that in the city of Hamilton you would find that there would be at least one person who is devoted to looking at the impacts of industrial pollution, and the impact on our air quality. There is no one person," she said.

Ward 1 Councillor Marvin Caplan said many factors affect health.

"What the study could lead us to think about is the health of the people in the community. You have to also think about their income, their education ... You can't make steel with zero pollution."

He said public health is under great pressures with shrinking budgets.

"We're an old, industrial city. We have some of the tools. With a little bit of help we are set to make a huge recovery. John Eyles (at McMaster University's Institute of Environment and Health) and his colleagues are not in favour of transportation routes (because of their effects on air pollution) but transportation is the way to move goods and services. How do you find a balance?"

Jerrett said his study uses data from the early 1990s, and there have been profound funding changes in environmental protection since then.

"We are seeing in essence a government which is maintaining health-care expenditure but cutting other areas to do so and that will put more pressure on the health-care system. ... When the stakes are high and in Ontario at least 42 per cent of the budget is devoted to health care ... it would be nice to say we have strong evidence to make those decisions about how to spend that money."

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