All things environmental

Musings about the environment and all it touches, from education to city planning

Archive for August 2018

Bad air and the law

leave a comment »

For the second August in a row, air quality advisories have been declared all over Vancouver and the lower mainland.  As many people, I suffer from asthma; mild as it may be, walking around, I feel as if the streets have become steeper.

Metro Vancouver offers a utility called AirMap; data from the north Burnaby show that the problem is mostly caused by the small respirable particles (PM10 on the data) caused by forest fires, at 63 micrograms per cubic meter.  A new report shows that BC currently has the worse air in all of North America.

So I got to walk a bit slower – not the end of the world, is it?  No, it’s not, but that is because I am lucky to have only a mild case of asthma.  Ella Kissi-Debrah wasn’t so lucky.

Ella Kissi-Debrah

Ella lived along one of the busiest and most polluted roads, South Circle Road, in London, UK.  In February 2013, after one particularly bad episode of air pollution, she was taken to the hospital – where she died of respiratory failure.  She was nine years old. She is a statistic, one of the estimated 40,000 people who die every year from respiratory problems due to air pollution in the UK; worldwide, the figure is 7 million.

Stalin reportedly said “one person dies, it’s a tragedy.  One million die, that’s a statistic.”  Indeed, confronted with such numbers, we tend to shrug.  But Ella is different: she is now the face of a highly publicized (see here, here, here, or here)court case.  She brings back the human dimension – and about time, too.

Ella was a healthy baby.  It could be that the poor quality of the air where she grew up brought on the asthma.  And it is likely that an episode of extremely polluted air brought about her fatal asthma crisis.  The science is in; the link between poor air quality and asthma is considered highly probable, especially for particulate matter and nitrogen oxides.  But can one prove beyond a reasonable doubt that this is what killed Ella?

Ultimately, this doesn’t really matter.  A decision in this type of case depends on a “balance of probabilities”, that is, it only needs to be deemed more likely than not.  As Michael Lepage reports in the New Scientist:

The main problem [causing air pollution] is that there are lots of highly polluting diesel vehicles on the roads.  Air pollution will gradually fall as the oldest, most polluting vehicles are replaced. Yet the courts have ruled that the government must act now, regardless of cost.  Air pollution campaigners say ministers have instead taken the cynical decision that it is cheaper to continue breaking the law.

But this delay is opening up a new legal front.  The continued failure of countries to meet EU limits means government are set to be sued for damages, as in Yokkaichi [where citizens successfully sued a petrochemical plant].

The New Scientist deemed the case important enough to devote it a full editorial.  Among other things, it cites:

We have seen how powerful stories can overcome inertia on environmental issues: the growing backlash against plastic was largely driven by the TV show Blue Planet II. Palm oil, too, is in the spotlight, as its production threatens iconic orangutans.

Large, faceless numbers, particularly the statistical constructs used by health officials in relation to air pollution, are easy to ignore. The death of a young girl, less so. While Ella’s case is not the first legal action over dirty air, it could be the most important in changing public perceptions, and waking us all up to the growing toxic threat.

Indeed.  Let’s hope for a precedent, one with teeth.  Because a legal precedent paves the way for similar cases, especially where the law is based on the British system.  And I am not thinking about quality (bad as it may be today) as about water quality.  Egregious disregard for the law, when it comes to water, are rife in this country.  Pipeline politics, anyone?  How about water supply on First Nations’ reserves?  It will be interesting to follow, at any rate.

Written by enviropaul

August 14, 2018 at 3:20 pm