Air pollution death toll claims just blowing smoke

By Peter Shawn Taylor, Waterloo Region Record

Anyone tossing around allegations that a “crime” has been committed had better be prepared to defend those claims with solid evidence.

Two weeks ago on these pages local entrepreneur Derek Satnik made such a claim. In defending the viability of wind power Satnik, who works in the green energy industry, warned readers that they must consider the deadly impact of other forms of electricity. (“Does any potential health risk from wind power even matter? March 26, 2011)

Satnik writes: “The chief medical officer of Ontario publishes annual reports that talk about the 9,000 Ontarians who die every year from respiratory aliments caused in part by the emissions from coal based electricity plants.” He claims anyone who uses electricity is somehow “involved” in this devastating annual death toll. “It’s a crime that we’ve gone so long thinking it’s OK for anyone to turn on their fridge without thinking of who dies at the other end of the wires.” It seems a damning argument. If true.

So where is the provincial government’s list of coal-fired deaths?

I phoned the chief medical officer of Ontario in Toronto and was told her office has never produced any reports on respiratory deaths due to electricity or air pollution. Hmm.

However, the Ontario Medical Association – a non-government organization that represents doctors – did produce a report in 2008 on the death toll resulting from air pollution. While it does not explicitly finger coal power as the culprit, it’s possible Satnik just made a sloppy reference.

Then again, over 9,000 deaths a year is a massive loss of life. A closer look at the original source material is necessary.

The Ontario Medical Association’s Illness Costs of Air Pollution report states that “air pollution is a contributing factor in almost 9,500 premature deaths per year in Ontario.” It then provides a surprisingly detailed account of these fatalities. In Waterloo Region exactly 348 deaths were caused by air pollution. In Guelph and environs, the toll was 158. Hamilton: 445. Toronto: 2,130.

But there is something absurd about the precision with which the doctors’ organization claims to have identified death by smog. Air pollution never shows up as a cause on a death certificate. So how can anyone be sure of these numbers? In fact not all doctors agree with the outlandish claims.

Last year I asked Cambridge family physician Paul Cary about the smog deaths attributed to our region. He called it “quite ludicrous. In 40 years of medicine I have never once seen or heard of a patient struck down by air pollution.” While smog alerts can be associated with mass hospitalizations and an increase in deaths, Cary explains this is a spurious link. Heat-exhaustion and fluid loss are the real culprits, not pollution.

The numbers for smog deaths do not come from any tangible real world evidence, but have been inferred using computer models.

The Ontario Medical Association combines hospitalization and death rates, air quality readings and various other factors to create a guess at how many fatalities are due to air pollution. This includes short-term impacts arising from smog alerts as well as longer-term effects. Toronto Public Health uses the same technique to conclude that 1,700 residents die annually from air pollution.

But computer modeling of this kind is a highly subjective exercise. It is necessary to apply some common sense to the results.

Ross McKitrick, a University of Guelph economist, has taken a close look at the usefulness of the computer methods producing these smog death figures. First he took Toronto’s computer model and gave it data from the 1960s, when air pollution was noticeably worse than today. Back-testing is a common way to judge a computer model’s reliability. If it cannot explain what has already happened, then it’s usefulness in explaining the future is highly suspect.

The output was nonsense. In February 1965, for instance, the computer model claimed more people died from air pollution than died in the real world from all causes.

“The results I got suggest the models are implausible,” McKitrick told me. “They’re attributing over 100 percent of all deaths to air pollution. It just doesn’t make sense.”

Given the obvious flaws in existing computer models, McKitrick created his own simulation. With two Scottish academics he gathered 20 years of data from five Canadian cities – a far larger data set than used by the Ontario Medical Association – and performed a more sophisticated computer test. These results show air pollution to be almost entirely irrelevant to hospital admissions or death. Smoking and income are the most significant factors in explaining respiratory ailments.

“We can find no evidence that air pollution levels observed from 1974 to 1994 had a detrimental effect on either excess hospital admissions or time spent in hospital,” concludes the report in the academic journal Environmental Modelling & Software.

According to McKitrick, even if all forms of air pollution miraculously disappeared from Ontario over night, there would be no noticeable decline in the death rate. Claims of a massive death toll do not stand up to scrutiny.

Fans of wind power can blow all they like, but 9,000 people do not die every year because of coal-fired electricity.

Peter Shawn Taylor is editor-at-large of Maclean’s. He lives in Waterloo.

17 thoughts on “Air pollution death toll claims just blowing smoke

  1. McKitrick is bang on. Among the foolishness propagated is that from the Ontario Clean Air Alliance. Jack Gibbons and his merry band of truthbenders have boiled this down to a ridiculous linear equation: X deaths per GWh of coal generation. Such a metric is so bogus it defies description.

  2. McKictrick’s information also reveals that subsets do exist where certain locations and certain conditions do cause problems with an increase in respiratory illness. (i.e. suburbs near major freeways or shipping ports etc.) These subsets, however should be exactly that, subsets, and not the basis for nationwide policy. Now how are the OMA and RNAO going to withdraw this claim and not look foolish in the process??

  3. Making such unfounded statements about death attributable to coal pollution, OMA and RNAO are making the mistake of not counting the health/mortality risks of the alternatives after the coal plants are shut down. We can’t just turn off 25% of our power supply. If this McGuinty gov’t is truly concerned about advocating on behalf of human health, as opposed to just jumping on the green bandwagon, they ought to have considered the impact on health from green energy policies that increase unemployment and triple the cost of electricity for families that are already having trouble making ends meet. Only now are we learning how expensive these green policies have become and to continue with this kind of mandate is putting Canada at risk for major unemployment as is the case in Spain were for every green job they invested into, 2.2 jobs in other sectors were lost.

  4. Maybe CANWEA, McGuinty, Duguid, OSEA,Suzuki, WWF, Sierra among all the other NGO’s involved in touting this line in their main “sales pitch” to eliminate coal-fired generation must be having fits and starts now that their main excuse for eliminating coal has been dashed!

    Of course this may not stop the never ending blathering of these groups trying to scare the pants off people about how deadly coal pollution can be even though it isn’t!

  5. Thank you for getting to the bottom of Mr. Satnik’s outlandish comments in the newspaper. Everytime I re-read the article he wrote, it just makes me crazy. Thank you for getting the truth out there about his claims. He also makes the claim that there are over 40,000 wind turbines installed around the world with no health problems. I don’t know where it gets that information, because it only takes about 20 minutes on the internet to find out the devastation Wind Turbines cause to the rural population all over the world. I hope someone has written a response to the newspaper to get the truth out there.

  6. This subject is a “red herring” when discussed in the context of wind power. It is completely irrelevant because wind power does not replace coal-powered generation. Wind doesn’t replace any kinds of generation because it’s so unreliable.

  7. If Harper supports Wind ..then perhaps in protest all of us should vote for the Bloc.
    Liberals , NDP , Green all support wind and solar….great why to protest. Give quebec some more seats. Who cares who runs the country when we are being destroyed.

  8. If a carbon tax/cap & trade program, is introduced in Canada, it will devastate the fragile economic recovery.
    If it gets as bad as the Alberta recession/near depression, caused by Trudeaus` National Energy Program, then Canadians will find out what a real recession is.
    The economic slowdown we just went through, was a cakewalk. It was nothing, compared to the devastation Alberta went through, 1000`s of businesses belly up, 100s of 1000s of personal bankruptsys/lost homes, broken familys.
    It was criminal. And now the same Liberal party, wants to repeat that criminal devastation, only this time they`re going to sink the entire country, instead of just one province.
    They must be stopped, simple as that!

  9. Derek Satnik should calculate all the people who will die from unrefrigerated food. Nothing like spoiled food to kill people.

    Eco-nut find it difficult to understand the long term consequences of actions and decisions that are made.

  10. Air pollution? I’d worry about LFN and infrasound noise pollution.

    According to Rokho Kim, head of the WHO’s urban noise task force: “I think it’s fair to say that there’s a higher biological plausibility for noise as a trigger of heart disease than air pollution.”

  11. This looks like more CAPEd propaganda…

    Mr. Forman holds a Master’s degree in philosophy from McGill University. He interned at The Nation – America’s oldest weekly journal – and studied creative writing at the Banff Centre for the Arts. From 1997-2004, he was Vice President of Strategic Communications Inc., a firm that provides political consulting and fundraising advice to the non-profit sector. In 1999, Strategic Communications was named to The Profit 100 as one of Canada’s fastest growing firms.

    It looks to me like CAPE engineered this — or at the least that Gideon Foreman is being taken as the spokesman for all doctors or presenting himself as such…

    Is he? Ask your family doctor.

    …or is it just more creative writing?

  12. History for the vast majority of people begins with their own life span. The vast majority of people now living in Ontario never experienced severe pollution/smog during their lives.

    They never lived when homes were heated by coal and factories ran on coal. Electric power was generated by coal in lots of places. Trains ran on coal.

    Thus they have never experienced what smog is really like in cities. The people promoting the scare about today’s smog don’t want to inform people that the air is ~90% cleaner than it was 50-60 years ago.

    Most of the time you can only get money/funding by scareing people. Coal burning can and has in lots of places already been cleaned up.

    Vehicle emissions have been cleaned up.

  13. It’s a good bet that the vast majority of Ontario doctors and nurses do NOT know what air pollution/smog is.

    They should view some old movies and read about smog in some of the old literature that describes smog. For example, the smog-fogs in London,England where people could only see about a meter in front of them. Sometimes this lasted for several days until wind cleared the smog-fog away.

    Perhaps Mr.Forman should be questioned about the smog issue and asked if he knows anything about prior smog history.

  14. Perhaps the candidates running for office should be asked waht they know about the history of smog/air pollution? Ask if they haver ever seen what real smog looks like.

    Remember China had to shut down factories for a couple of weeks so that the Olympic Games could take place in China?

    This didn’t have to be done so that Canada could host the 2010 winter Olympic Games.

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