Jack Dini
Jack Dini

BY JACK DINI – How many people do you know who died from air pollution? I’m hard pressed to come up with one name.

However, if I lived in Canada, things might be different. For years, Canadians have been barraged by grim data detailing with incredible precision, the massive effect of air pollution on human mortality.

According to the Ontario Medical Association, exactly 348 people died from air pollution in the Waterloo Region in 2008. In Hamilton, 445 lives were cut short. And Manitoulin Island tragically lost 14 residents due to pollutants that year. Calculations by Toronto Public Health claim air pollution kills 1,700 people annually and sends 6,000 to the hospital. Ten percent of all non-trauma deaths in Toronto are directly attributed to air pollution. The Canadian Medical Association says there were 21,000 deaths from exposure to air-borne pollutants in 2008. Of these, 2,682 Canadians were instantly struck down by the acute effects of pollution. By 2031, 710,000 people will have been slain by this unseen killer, reports Peter Shawn Taylor. (1)

There’s nothing like precise statistics to get one’s attention and help support a wide range of policies, regulations, fees and taxes. So the question to ask is: Is it really as bad as the computers say?

Let’s look at the mid-1960s in Toronto when the air was much more polluted than today. Back then the average sulfur dioxide levels in downtown Toronto were more than 100 parts per billion (ppb); it’s now less than 10 ppb. As Taylor adds, “No surprise then, that the death toll was much greater in the bad old days. Across the 1960s, half of all non-trauma deaths were the direct result of air pollution, according to Toronto’s model. And in February 1965, more than 100% of all deaths were due to pollution! In other words, air pollution killed more people according to the computer model than actually died of all causes in the real world. How’s that for deadly?” (1)

Makes one want to question the computer models, and that’s exactly what some researchers did. They found that air pollution has no significant bearing on hospital admissions due to respiratory problems. In fact, their peer-reviewed study reports that smoking and income levels are far more important than any pollutant. They  looked at 11 Canadian cities spanning 1974-1994 in reaching their conclusions. During this interval, pollution levels were typically much higher than the present. (2)

Here’s another one: The Chinese city of Xi’an has some of the worst air quality in the world. Yet its air is significantly safer than the air in US cities according to a recent study. The report says that, as measured by the Chinese researchers, the air in Xi’an is, on average, 9-10 times more polluted in terms of PM 2.5 than the median PM 2.5 levels of the two most polluted cities in the 112 city US study (Rubidoux, CA and Los Angeles, CA), yet it is safer than US air by a factor of five. (3)

Steve Milloy says, “This is shocking since if air pollution really was deadly, one would expect to see this phenomenon operating in high gear in the respiratory horror story that Xi’an should be.” (4)

In other reports, six independent sources show little of nor relationship between PM 2.5 and deaths in California. One study, by UCLA’s Dr. James Enstron of the long-term relationship between PM 2.5 air pollution and mortality followed nearly 50,000 elderly Californians over a 30-year period, from 1973 through 2002. It concluded that there was no death effect from current atmospheric levels of PM 2.5 in California. (5)

Researchers have been unable to kill animals with air pollution at levels anywhere near as low as the levels found in ambient air. As a reviewer of particulate matter toxicology concluded: “It remains the case that no form of ambient PM—other than viruses, bacteria, and biochemical antigens—has been shown, experimentally or clinically, to cause disease or death at concentrations remotely close to US ambient levels.” (6)

It’s no secret that environmentalists and regulators exaggerate environmental risks. The most serious health claim about air pollution is that it kills tens of thousands of Americans each year. All of the above information suggests that claims and public policy about air pollution may be overdone.


  1. Peter Shawn Taylor, “Junk science week: the missing smog dead,” Financial Post, June 15, 2010
  2. Gary Koop, Ross McKitrick, and Lise Tole, “Air pollution economic activity and respiratory illness: evidence from cities, 1974-1994,” Environmental Modeling & Software, 25, 873, July 2010
  3. Junji Cao et. Al., “Fine particulate matter constituents and cardiopulmonary mortality in a heavily polluted Chinese city,” Environmental Health Perspectives, January 3, 2012
  4. Steve Milloy, “Shocker: Chinese air pollution debunks EPA junk science,” junkscience.com, January  5, 2012
  5. James. E. Enstron, “Fine particulate air pollution and coarse particulate air pollution on mortality: a national analysis,” Environmental Health Perspectives, 117(6), 898, 2009
  6. L. C. Green and S. R. Armstrong, “Particulate matter in ambient air and mortality: toxicologic perspectives,” Regulatory Toxicology and Pharmacology, 38, 326, 2003