Currents of Change: Inspiring, Creating, Transforming

Currents of Change: Inspiring, Creating, Transforming

Friday, 2 March 2012

Prescription for a Healthy Environment

By Deborah Martin-Downs,
Chair of 19th Annual Latornell Symposium

Why is it that, as a society, we spend more on treating sickness than we do on enhancing or protecting the environment?  It is well known that sickness can be caused by the environment we live in, including pollution of air, water, plants and animals by chemicals, pathogens and a variety of other contaminants, as well as our community design which encourages a less active lifestyle. 

The recently released Drummond report noted that Ontario spends $ 44.8 billion on health care while the Ministries of the Environment and Natural Resources (MOE and MNR) together have less than $1 billion in funding or just over 2% of the Ontario Budget.  Further, the Drummond Report suggests that these departments be subject to a 2.4% reduction in spending while the same increase would be applied to health care and a further 0.5% to social services. 

So maybe it’s time to see the health care benefits of the environment, not as a cost to the tax payers but as an essential service – for without a healthy environment as a foundation for Ontario, residents will have to rely more heavily on a health care system that is already overloaded.  Heart disease, diabetes and asthma are directly related to inactivity and air pollution, among other things. More of Ontario’s young people are growing up in urban areas where they become disconnected with nature and its benefits. 

The health benefits of trees can be explored through a computer model called Urban Forests Effects (UFORE), now known as the iTree models, developed by the United States Department of Agriculture to calculate the effects and values of urban forests.  Trees and shrubs in the urban forest can improve local air quality by absorbing or collecting pollutants. In a recent study of the urban forest in Mississauga, Brampton, Caledon East and Bolton (Peel Region et al 2011) it is estimated that 890 tonnes of air pollution are removed annually by the trees with a total removal value of approximately $9.5 million.  The urban forest in the City of Toronto removed an estimated 1,430 metric tonnes of air pollutants annually with an equivalent value of $16.1 million/year.

From a personal health angle, the Ontario Medical Association (Ontario Medical Association 2005 The Illness Costs of Air Pollution in Ontario) estimated that approximately 60,000 Ontarians visited emergency rooms due to the effects from air pollution, and 17,000 were admitted to hospitals for chronic health problems exacerbated by air pollution in 2005. It is expected that these rates will increase to 88,000 and 24,000 respectively by 2026. In 2005, economic losses due to lost productivity, healthcare costs, pain and suffering and loss of life associated with air pollution exposure have been estimated at $7.8 billion, and this total is expected to increase to over $12.9 billion by 2026.  So, investment in trees alone to address some of the air pollution and resulting health problems looks like a good investment for the Province.    

The AD Latornell Conservation Symposium theme this year is ‘Prescription for a Healthy Environment’. Here we will explore some of the relationships between human and environmental health as well as some of the solutions that will be needed to ensure both for the future.  Hope you’ll be there to contribute to the discussion!

Deborah Martin-Downs is the Director of the Ecology Division at the Toronto & Region Conservation Authority and Conference Chair, of the 19th Annual A.D. Latornell Conservation Symposium