Another Great Reason To Truly (No Sprawl) Go Green: Your Health and Healthcare

Greg Galitzine : Green Blog
Greg Galitzine
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Another Great Reason To Truly (No Sprawl) Go Green: Your Health and Healthcare

"Just go out for a breath of air/And you'll be ready for Medicare"--Tom Lehrer

The Canadian Medical Association released a literally devastating report earlier this month titled: "No Breathing Room: National Illness Costs of Air Pollution" that bears out the brilliance, prescience, and unfortunate timelessness of Mr. Lehrer's musical satire.

The contents should make you gasp, think about saving energy, think again about locating in car-oriented 'greenfields' no matter 'green' the buildings are, ...and consider instead strategies like teleworking and situating offices and homes in higher-density, walkable, transit-accessible, and healthier truly green communities.

Among the key and very disturbing data:

* In 2008, 21,000 Canadians will die from the effects of air pollution. While most of these deaths will be due to chronic exposure over a number of years, 2,682 will be the result of acute short term exposure

* By 2031, almost 90,000 people will have died from the acute effects of air pollution. The number of deaths due to long-term exposure to air pollution will be 710,000

* The number of premature deaths associated with chronic exposure to air pollution is expected to rise 83 percent between 2008 and 2031

* In 2008, almost 11,000 hospital admissions will result from exposure to air pollution

By 2031, close to 18,000 people will be admitted because of air pollution: a 62 percent increase during that period

* Over 92,000 emergency department visits associated with air pollution exposure are expected in 2008 increasing to nearly 152,000 by 2031

* It is estimated that there will be over 620,000 doctor's office visits in 2008 because of air pollution. This total is expected to rise to over 940,000 visits in 2031 if air quality does not improve.

With these impacts there are huge pricetags: The economic costs: healthcare expenses, loss of productivity and destruction of quality of life resulting from air pollution will top $8 billion in 2008. By 2031, they will have accumulated to over $250 billion.

The numbers get uglier when translated to the US by multiplying by 10 to reflect Canada's smaller population. US employers can apply on top of that about 70 percent of the healthcare losses to their bottom lines given Canada's taxpayer-supported medical systems. 

So who is the key culprit of air pollution, and the resulting medical visits and deaths? Look no further than your parking lot.

Private vehicles account for over 60 percent of air pollution from transportation sources, and a significant share of total emissions.

To illustrate, a report published by Hydro-Quebec, the province's electric utility, compared greenhouse gases from different transportation modes. A single-occupant--and most commuting trips are just that despite futile efforts to get people to carpool--SUV pumps out 405 grams per passenger-kilometre while a compact car releases 214 grams per passenger-km.

In contrast, even a half-full diesel bus spews out 56 grams. An electric light rail or subway car is responsible for much less, even zero if the electricity is derived solely from renewable sources such as hydroelectric dams, solar, and wind.

These reports understate the emissions because they do not take into account the pollution created from road construction and maintenance, and from delays caused by the work, no matter how fuel efficient some vehicles may be.

The heavier cars and truck are the more road capacity and wear-and-tear on pavement and surfaces they incur, requiring more trucks and equipment to repair this infrastructure. Rail vehicles, because they have a lower friction coefficient that cuts energy demand, causes less wear-and-tear, and delays are more easily managed because trains operate in a controlled environment.

There is another set of health kickers: one that makes locating in 'greenfield' commercial and housing developments deadly, no matter how 'LEEDing edge' they are in energy consumption...and these are accident rates and lifestyle illnesses and deaths resulting from car-oriented sprawl.

* A research review by the Ontario College of Family Physicians demonstrated that suburban areas have a higher incidence of cardiovascular and lung diseases including asthma in children, cancer, obesity, diabetes, traffic injuries and deaths.

The report concluded that air pollution, gridlock, traffic accidents, lack of physical activity, and negative social impacts such as road rage lead to a variety of these health problems

* A study in The American Journal of Health Promotion and the American Journal of Public Health reported that Americans living in sprawling developments are 6 lbs heavier and are at greater risk for diabetes, heart disease and high blood pressure

* The nonprofit group Smartrisk reported in 2006 that motor vehicle collisions were the second most costly source of injuries in Ontario, at more than $1.1 billion

* Todd Litman, of the Victoria Transport Policy Institute reported that the number of traffic fatalities were 26.3 per 100,000 people in the most sprawled cities as compared with just 5.6 per 100,000 in the least sprawled metropolitan areas

Such data makes the decision to locate even green office buildings in sprawl, surrounded by acres of free parking even more unsustainable healthwise as well as for other environmental plus energy and traffic congestion reasons. 

A brilliant recent article in The Montreal Gazette pointed out this contradiction between green PR and environmental reality, which the less charitable brand as 'greenwash'. 

The story cited as one example Bell Canada's new campus-- the first new project in Montreal to follow green building LEED principles...

...which is located in a traffic hotspot, in a remote communitywise part of the city and a long way from the famed Metro underground and expanding commuter rail network...and has plenty of parking: 2,050 spaces or 1 for every 2 employees. Even though private vehicles generate 1/3 of the province's greenhouse gases.

"That's not so green," wrote Henry Aubin about the Bell project. "To get serious about global warming means building real estate projects that are not so dependent on car travel." 

The same goes for getting serious about improving our health and controlling healthcare costs...


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