Saint John has suffered incidents of heavy metal deposition on parts of the city from accidental releases of spent catalyst from the oil refinery over the past few decades, as well as lead poisoning in children partly from old lead water pipes, and partly from deposition in the environment in Saint John from over a century of fossil fuel use. These toxic heavy metals are cumulative, in the environment and in people. Children are most susceptible to permanent damage. Fossil fuel emissions have many other adverse health effects as well.
Researchers have been able to calculate the amount of money we will save, and the number of lives we will save, by switching from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources. The financial savings, and the reduction in deaths, especially for larger cities, are astounding.
I would like to give you a broad overview of fossil fuel emission health effects, particularly in relation to people in the Saint John area. In 1980, when I came back to Saint John as District Medical Health Officer after studying public health in Chicago, the air pollution was so bad that the Environment inspector would be on the radio every morning with the air pollution index. Before going on the air, he would call me with the S02 and particulate levels, so that I could field calls from the public and the media on the health effects expected, and what to do.
In 1980s and ’90s increasing asthma rates in East Saint John schools caused concerned teachers and others to establish the Clean Air Coalition, whose efforts led to reductions in air pollutants.
Medical doctors and researchers Robert Beveridge and James Ducharme had carried out studies at the Saint John Regional Hospital which showed increasing hospital emergency department visits and increasing hospital admissions associated with increasing levels of pollutants in Saint John air. Beveridge and others also noted excess deaths from respiratory causes in Saint John compared to Fredericton and Moncton, excess deaths from respiratory causes in Saint John compared to New Brunswick as a whole, and in Saint John compared to Canada as a whole.
Although he later moved to Ontario, Beveridge, along with others, continued to study the health effects of air pollution on people in Canadian cities. In their studies they sometimes still used data from the Saint John Regional Hospital. They, and others, have determined that air pollution causes or worsens many medical conditions, especially heart and lung diseases and cancer and causes many deaths. They have also calculated the health costs and financial losses to us as a result of air pollution. It amounts to thousands of deaths and billions of dollars of costs for health care in Canada.
Much of this air pollution is caused by fossil fuels: extracting them, transporting them, storing them, refining them and burning them. About 10 years ago, I presented research done in Europe at our Family Medicine rounds at the Saint John Regional Hospital showing how components of fossil fuel emissions affected children’s immune systems and asthma in children. Since then American researchers have found that asthma itself in both children and adults is caused by components of fossil-fuel-related air pollution.
Developments in recent years, like the oil refinery expansion, and increased transport and storage of crude oil in the city, have increased fossil fuel-related air pollution. Over the past five years, according to documents obtained by the Reuters news agency, Saint John has had increased problems with particulates particularly from the oil refinery. Recent large studies on health effects of fossil-fuel related air pollutants have focused on fine particulates, particulate matter with diameter less than or equal to 2.5 microns, (a millionth of a metre) or PM2.5.
The World Health Organization (WHO) working group reported in 2003 that there were no safe levels of exposure to these fine particulates (PM2.5). (1) (Saint John industries emitted over 800 metric tons of PM2.5 in 2002, reduced to about 500 metric tons by 2006, while Fredericton reported less than 50 in all years, and Moncton reported none, according to the NPRI data.)
What is it in fossil fuel emissions that damages our hearts and lungs and gives us asthma, allergies and cancer? VOC’s (volatile organic compounds) evaporate easily into the air and are found in gasoline, crude oil, tar sands oil (dilbit) and natural gas. Some of these chemicals may have immediate toxic effects or cause cancer, but most affect people when they combine with nitrogen oxides (NOX, emitted from burning fossil fuels) in the presence of sunlight to form ozone and smog. Smog damages the lungs and causes heart attacks and asthma attacks.
PAH’s (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons) are found in crude oil and tar sands oil, and also form when fossil fuels are burned. When emitted into the air they can be present as a gas, adsorbed (attached) to fine particulates (PM2.5), or form part of particles like soot. (2) Some of them cause cancer. They have also been found to cause adverse effects on the immune system and cause children to develop allergies and asthma. Lead and arsenic in the PM2.5 from fossil fuel emissions cause cancer, and nickel and vanadium may damage the immune system and cause asthma. (3)
Researchers are now able to calculate the number of excess deaths in the population for each 10 microgram per cubic metre increase in PM2.5, and decreases in deaths when the air pollution is reduced. A recent study of the entire population of New England over 65 years of age shows excess deaths even at levels of particulate air pollution considered safe by the EPA (12micrograms per cubic metre annual and 35 micrograms per cubic metre daily) and the New Brunswick and Canadian governments (10 micrograms per cubic metre annual and 28 micrograms per cubic metre daily). In fact, because of the cancer-causing substances in fossil-fuel-derived particulates, there is probably no safe level of fossil-fuel-derived fine particulates. So zero is the number you want.
A preview of a study was published by Nature online May 25, 2016. This study measured the secondary organic aerosols in the air over the Canadian oil sands and noted that “the production of the more viscous crude oils could be a large source of secondary organic aerosols in many production and refining regions worldwide.” “Secondary organic aerosol formation is an important component of atmospheric particulate matter that affects air quality and climate”. One would conclude from this that air quality in Saint John would worsen if “tar sands oil” and other heavy oils are transferred to Saint John for processing.
To summarize, Saint John has problems with fossil fuel-related air pollution, especially fine particulates and sulphur compounds. An increase in particulates increases premature deaths, especially for those over 65. We should avoid bringing more fossil fuels to the city and develop clean, green industry and jobs instead.
Paula Tippett is a resident of Saint John and former District Health Officer for the region.
(1) Health aspects of air pollution with particulate matter, ozone and nitrogen dioxide: Report from WHO Working Group Meeting, Bonn, Jan 13-15, 2003. Copenhagen: WHO Regional Office for Europe.
(2) Report of Recommendations on Odours and Emissions in the Peace River Area, 2014 ABAER 005 (March 31, 2014), Alberta Energy Regulator,
(3) Miller, Rachel L et al, Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, environmental tobacco smoke , and respiratory symptoms in an inner city birth cohort. Chest, 2004 Oct: 126 (4):1071-1078. and Patel, Molini M et al, Ambient metals, elemental carbon, and wheeze and cough in New York City children through 24 months of age. Amer J Respir Crit Care Med. 2009 Dec 1; 180 (11): 1107-1113.