Toronto committee urges changes to diesel truck emission rules

The city’s director of environmental services will appear before council on Tuesday to discuss the health risks posed by nitrogen dioxide (NO2) emissions from vehicle exhaust, after a recommendation by the Toronto Public Health (TPH) vice-chair said the rules go too far and have a “direct correlation” with fatalities.

The movement of heavy vehicles through the city “has changed substantially over the past 50 years”, according to the issue statement from Chris Blair, who chairs the Public Health Committee.

“Toronto Public Health (TPH) has seen an increase in the number of fatal and near-fatalities in 2017 due to NO2 emitted from heavy vehicle exhaust. [There] are some links to the exposure of car drivers and passengers from the NO2 emitted from their vehicles. The need for more effective measures to limit the exposure of residents to NO2 was identified as a major concern”, Blair said.

The TPH has recommended that the city council maintain the current measures put in place by the Ontario government’s COVID-19 program, which regulates the levels of NO2 emissions coming from heavy vehicles. The requirements are set annually for the most part and run between January and November.

“The city of Toronto will continue to work with the province of Ontario as well as industry and other partners to determine new measures that would result in fewer deaths and medical emergencies as a result of NO2 released from heavy truck and bus fleets,” Blair’s statement said.

In 2017, around 40 people were killed in Toronto from heavy vehicle related crashes, some of them resulting from NO2 emissions, according to the TPH. The city of Toronto didn’t have an exact breakdown on the kind of crashes caused by NO2, but Blair said: “Some of the deaths were caused by other factors, such as highway traffic collisions. However, traffic accidents are not unusual in Toronto, and have significant impact on our city’s health and safety.”

The COVID-19 program is designed to limit the “risk to the health of the wider community” while allowing large port and manufacturing plants to ensure sufficient amount of pollution, according to Blair. Since 2009, a number of large harbour facilities – such as Vancouver’s port authority and another facility owned by port of Oakland in California – have opted to comply with the policy, while large manufacturers and transit operators are exempt from it, he said.

In 2011, Ontario publicly acknowledged that COVID-19 had resulted in 98 additional deaths between 2009 and 2011, and Blair believes the policy to be effective.

“A recent analysis of COVID-19 emissions data by Northern Alberta Institute of Technology concluded that in 2014, an average of 0.45 in 200 commuters who drove into work on a high-COVID-19 day lived below the poverty line, which is lower than the federal poverty rate. [This] shows that COVID-19 is a key tool for reducing air pollution.”

According to Blair, this is because COVID-19 ensures that any pollution levels released by road transport vehicles on city streets are below the national standard for particulate matter.

Ontario’s environment minister has stated in the past that the province has no current plans to change the policy, according to Blair.

“In spite of recent developments, the concentration of COVID-19 is still extremely low, at about one part per billion. This indicates that the program is protecting our residents and that health data is sufficient to determine that COVID-19 is working. The program is protective of public health, even with increased volumes of heavy vehicle traffic in urban centres,” Blair’s statement said.

“Last year, Toronto Public Health commended city council for adopting COVID-19. With the increase in NO2 emissions, TPH will continue to work with city council and all city partners to develop and implement policies that will continue to support public health and the overall environment and health of our residents.”

The city council meeting where this issue is set to be discussed starts at 3pm on Tuesday.

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