Blog | June 19, 2013

By Kerri Johannson, Joe Vipond And Raquel Feroe in ffwd weekly, June 13, 2013Alberta’s reputation is on the line. With government and industry touting the benefits of trans-boundary pipelines, multinational environmental groups counter that weak environmental standards and dirty oilsands are a major culprit in climate change. Flying under the radar amid this highly publicized debate is that 64 per cent of Alberta’s electricity supply comes from coal.Coal — the dirtiest of dirty energies, the bastion of ener-antiquity that this province continues to subsidize and support. In Alberta, coal is responsible for half of all climate-change inducing carbon emissions as well as being a major source of particulate matter, nitrogen oxides and sulphur oxides, all of which can lead to the development and worsening of severe lung and heart diseases. While millions are being spent on political photo-ops for oilsands projects, thousands of Albertans with chronic illness are being continually exposed to coal-related pollutants that may be endangering their lives.May was Asthma Awareness Month, so named to highlight one of the most widespread chronic respiratory diseases, affecting over 2.5 million Canadians and nearly one in 10 Albertans. Asthma isn’t just needing to take a puffer before hockey practice — asthma can be fatal and can have lifelong impacts on health and quality of life. Numerous studies have demonstrated the adverse effects of air pollution on airways diseases like asthma and emphysema.New research has also emerged relating these exposures to several other types of lung and heart diseases. The American Heart Association recognizes particulate matter as a preventable risk factor for heart disease and cardiac-related deaths, a position further endorsed by the Canadian Medical Association. As any physician knows, a critical component in dealing with these types of non-curable but manageable illnesses is risk mitigation, which includes minimizing exposure to potentially harmful environmental exposures. If cats trigger an asthma exacerbation, I tell my patient to avoid cats. Unfortunately for my patients whose symptoms are triggered by smog, the answer is not so simple. I would love to suggest they reduce their exposure, but short of suggesting that they live in a bubble, this is challenging. Change of this type can only be made at a policy level.A joint report recently released by the Pembina Institute, Canadian Physicians for the Environment, The Lung Association — Alberta & NWT, and the Asthma Society of Canada (A Costly Diagnosis: Subsidizing Coal with Albertans’ Health) estimates that the air pollution released from burning coal in Alberta is responsible for over 4,000 severe asthma episodes per year, over 700 emergency department visits, 80 acute-care admissions and 100 premature deaths. As a result of these illnesses, the estimated health care cost due to coal-related emissions is $300 million every year. This is taxpayer money spent as a result of a greenhouse-gas heavy subsidized industry that most of us would like to see gone. In an already stretched medical system, we need to reduce these preventable events. And in a deficit-tinged economy, the benefits of phasing out coal clearly outweigh any costs.It comes as no surprise that Albertans are ready for change. A survey released last month by Clean Energy Canada found that over two-thirds of Albertans support the phasing out of coal in favour of natural gas and renewables, or a complete shut-down of coal plants altogether. With Alberta Energy recently announcing a plan to draft a renewable energy framework in 2013, there is immediate opportunity to capitalize on change.Alberta is under the global eco-microscope and at a critical point. Shockingly for this province, our fate is at the mercy of a renewable energy framework to be implemented within two years. It is time to show the world that Alberta is ready and willing to promote sustainability. Premier Alison Redford and Energy Minister Ken Hughes have the opportunity to represent Albertans’ health interests by implementing legislation to phase out coal in favour of renewable energy sources. This is achievable and affordable. This is an opportunity to put health interests at the forefront of policy, and a chance for this province to get a much-needed reframing in the eyes of the environmental world.Kerri Johannson, MD FRCPCJoe Vipond, MD CCFP-EM, FCFPRaquel Feroe, MD FRCPC, physician and adult convenor of ECO-AIR, an Emerald Award-winning youth group advocating for clean airRead the article at ffwd weekly.PIA is part of a provincial coalition against the negative effects of coal use in Alberta.Download the report A Costly Diagnosis - Subsidizing coal power with Albertans’ health, March 2013 - This report is the first of its kind to assess the health and environmental costs of coal-fired electricity in Alberta. It was co-authored by the Asthma Society of Canada, Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment, The Lung Association, Alberta & the Northwest Territories, and the Pembina Institute.