Drivers and Impacts of Air Pollution

Air pollutionFootnote [1] can affect Canadians' health, the environment, buildings, structures and the economy in general. Air pollution problems such as smog and acid rain result from the presence of, and interactions among, various air pollutants released to the atmosphere through natural processes and human activities. Natural sources of air pollution include forest fires, volcanoes and emissions of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) from vegetation. Human sources of air pollution include activities that rely on carbon-based fuels (e.g., transportation, electricity generation and industrial processes such as oil and gas production) as well as certain products, such as paints and solvents.

Key drivers of air pollution

Outdoor air pollutant concentrations can be influenced by many factors. These include outside temperature and humidity, the quantity and proximity of air pollutants released by human activities and natural sources, and the direction and strength of winds carrying the pollutants.

The growth in Canada's population and economy and in the demand for Canadian exports (especially from the oil and gas sector) increases the demand for goods and services, transportation and housing. The energy used to meet this demand (including electricity generated from fossil fuels) is a source of air pollutants.

But despite this growth, overall emissions of air pollutants have generally decreased in Canada in the past two decades. These reductions were achieved through various means, including the implementation of regulations, actions and technological improvements for transportation vehicles and industrial processes. The adoption of more environmentally sustainable practices by consumers and industry, such as using public transit and carpooling, and optimizing production processes to reduce energy use, have also contributed to the decrease.

Consult the Air Pollutant Emissions indicators for more information on the key sectors contributing to air emissions by pollutant.

Key impacts of air pollution

Human health impacts

  • Exposure to nitrogen oxides (NOX) and sulphur oxides (SOX) can irritate the lungs, reduce lung function, and increase susceptibility to allergens in people with asthma. Both NOX and SOX are also precursors of fine particulate matter (PM2.5).
  • Fine particulate matter and ground-level ozone (O3) have been associated with eye, nose and throat irritations, shortness of breath, exacerbation of respiratory conditions, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and asthma, exacerbation of allergies, increased risk of cardiovascular disease and premature death.Footnote [2] The young, the elderly and those with acute illnesses are at greater risk.

Environmental impacts

  • Ground-level O3 can reduce the growth and productivity of some crops and injure flowers and shrubs and may contribute to forest decline in some parts of Canada.Footnote [3] Ecosystem changes can also occur, as plant species that are more resistant to ground-level O3 can become more dominant than those that are less resistant.Footnote [4]
  • Various particulate matter (PM) constituents taken up by plants from the soil can reduce plant growth and productivity and can cause physical damage to plant surfaces via abrasion.Footnote [4]
  • Nitrogen oxides and SOX can cause or accelerate the corrosion and soiling of materials and are major contributors to acid rain. Acid rain affects soils and water bodies, and stresses both vegetation and animals.Footnote [5]

Economic impacts

  • The health effects of PM2.5 and ground-level O3 can lead to increased health care costs, missed days of work and reduced worker productivity. This costs Canadians and the Canadian economy billions of dollars per year.Footnote [6]
  • Increased ground-level O3 levels also reduce the growth of crops, plants and trees, leading to economic losses in agriculture and forestry. This costs Canadian farmers millions of dollars in lost production each year.Footnote [7]
  • SmogFootnote [8] can accelerate the discoloration, fading and tarnishing of materials (e.g., rubbers, textiles, surface coatings), increasing the rate at which they need to be replaced or cleaned.Footnote [4]

Ways to tackle air pollution

To help reduce overall air pollution levels:

  • When possible, use public transportation instead of a car, or walk or ride a bicycle when and where it is safe to do so.
  • Look for alternatives to fossil fuel-powered machines and vehicles. Try a rowboat or a sailboat instead of a motorboat, or use a push-type lawnmower instead of one that runs on gasoline.
  • Consider fuel efficiency when buying a vehicle. Keep all vehicles well maintained.
  • Reduce energy use by making your home more energy efficient.

To reduce your exposure to air pollution and its potential health effects:

  • Check the Air Quality Health Index (AQHI) in your community and adapt your schedule accordingly.
  • Avoid or reduce strenuous outdoor activities when smog levels are high. Consider indoor activities instead.
  • Avoid or reduce exercising near areas of heavy traffic, especially during rush hour.
  • Talk to your family doctor or a health care professional if you have concerns about your health or the health of a family member.

The Government of Canada is taking action to help reduce the overall levels of air pollution. Releasing air pollutants into the atmosphere is subject to a number of regulations developed and implemented under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act (1999). The regulations aim to limit the amount of pollutants that are released into the air each year.

To learn more about the expected impact of regulations developed by the Government of Canada, consult the Regulatory Impact Analysis Statement (RIAS)Footnote [9] that accompanies each regulation. The RIAS outlines the reasoning behind the development of a particular regulation, its objectives, and its expected costs and benefits. The RIAS also includes details about consultations that were conducted and about how the government intends to track the performance of the regulation.

Related indicators

Other information

Related regulations

Regulations specific to air pollutants under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, 1999 (CEPA 1999) include, but are not limited to, the following:

All regulations administered under CEPA 1999 are available in the registry.

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