Monday, September 26, 2005

Childproofing for Environmental Health

I have to admit, my segue into the environmental movement was based on selfish motives. After the birth of our first child twenty years ago, I began the process of childproofing our home. Once I'd managed the interior of our house, I took a peek outside. My first concerns were the hazards within our own yard, and then I took a look at the bigger backyard of our community.

It was a serious awakening. Durham Region is home to the two largest nuclear power plants in Canada. In addition to routine plants emissions, we also have high-level and low-level waste to deal with, as well as several regular-type garbage dumps. And then there's the air quality. Thanks to our proximity downwind from the Golden Horseshoe and the Ohio Valley, we have some of the worst air quality, and correspondingly high asthma rates, in the country. Did I mention we live on the shore of Lake Ontario, home to the countless thousand chemicals that we flush down our drains everyday?

I guess you could say I had my work cut out for me. Still do, for that matter, but fortunately I am not alone. The health of our children – both our greatest natural resource and our future – is increasingly the focus of a tremendous amount of intelligent concern and research.

Last week, this body of research was added to significantly by the launch of the Canadian Partnership for Children's Health and the Environment (CPCHE) national awareness campaign. The CPCHE campaign is aimed at providing parents, childcare providers and decision makers with the tools to protect children from environmental risks. To understand the depth of the research behind this campaign, one only needs to look at a partial list of CPCHE members, which includes The Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment, the Canadian Environmental Law Association, the Canadian Institute of Child Health and Pollution Probe (to name a few).

As a part of the campaign, CPCHE has released the report, "Child Health and the Environment - A Primer", and a brochure, "Playing it Safe: Childproofing for Environmental Health."

I like both of these publications very much. They are well researched, well written and easy to read. More importantly, they put the environment as the context for child health. In other words, every single aspect of a child's health is determined by the health of the environment in which they live. And by environment, I mean everything – before conception, during pregnancy, first foods (breastmilk or not), how often you wash your hands when handling a baby, how you play with a child, when and how you dust your home, and even it you take your shoes off at the door!

This one particularly intrigued me. It turns out that it isn't just dust that we trek into our homes. Metals, pesticides, pollens and animal feces, to name a few, are all things that we advertently bring into our homes and in doing so create potential threats to our children, who typically spend 80 percent of their time indoors.

Over all, "Child Health and the Environment" recommends its Top Ten List for environmental childproofing. These include:
1. Healthy Living and Healthy Eating
2. Handwashing and Dustbusting
3. Healthy Indoor Air
4. Outdoor Air Pollution Reduction
5. Toxic Use Reduction
6. Safe at Play
7. Safe Renovations
8. Special Measures in Rural Northerly Settings
9. Be an Informed Consumer
10.Get Involved

The publications also explain why we should be more concerned about protecting children from environmental contaminants. The smaller they are, the more likely they are to be crawling around on the floor, picking up stuff we don't even see (hence the "take off your shoes" tip). Relative to their size, they absorb more contaminates than adults at a time when the are growing and developing far faster than at any other time of their lives.

Which is perhaps where the selfish part kicks in. Ultimately, children are our future. Forget about pension plans, RSPs and mutual funds. It's time that we started protecting our greatest investment.


To download the "Child Health and the Environment - A Primer" or the brochure, "Playing it Safe: Childproofing for Environmental Health" visit Canadian Partnership for Children's Health and the Environment

The CPCHE report was released in conjunction with the Toronto Public Health's study, "Environmental Threats to Children: Understanding the Risks, Enabling Prevention." To view the report go to City of Toronto

The Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment

The Canadian Environmental Law Association

Monday, September 19, 2005

Car Free Day

Car Free Day

By: Suzanne Elston

The celebration of Car Free Day on September 22, couldn't have come at a more opportune time. With gas prices at the pumps still well over a dollar a litre, Canadians are actually beginning to look at ways to cut down on gas consumption.

In anticipation of the event, last week Brian and I staged our very own "No Car Day". We dusted off the old bike chariot that Sarah used to ride around in as a baby, and hooked it up to Brian's bike. Shopping list in hand, we set out on our bikes to prove that you can function without a car – even when you live in the country.

The trip to our nearest grocery store is only about 4 km (2.5 miles) away, but when you factor in stop signs, traffic lights and the time that it takes to find a parking space, the trip usually takes about ten minutes by car (or twenty minutes round trip). The bike trip took twice as long, about twenty minutes each way, which was quite remarkable when you consider that on the trip back we were hauling an entire week's worth of groceries. (Okay, Brian was doing the hauling, while I was enjoying the scenery!)

Since I would ordinarily take our fuel-efficient Golf when I'm driving around doing errands, the money saved on gas was minimal, but we did learn a whole lot in the process. First of all, as a society we immediately run to the store when we need something because, thanks to the family car, it generally only takes a few minutes to get there. If you have to take your bike, it means planning head or doing without until you can make the trip. What this also means is that by stopping to think before we buy, we can actually save money by reducing unnecessary purchases.

Secondly, 40 minutes represents a healthy amount of moderate exercise. Given that almost half of Canadian adults are overweight, a little pumping of the pedals is an excellent form of exercise for virtually everyone. As someone with significantly arthritic knees, I can no longer take the brisk walks that used to help keep me in shape. Bike riding, on the other hand, provides a similar cardio workout to walking and actually strengthens my knees.
In light of a recently released study by the Canadian Institute for Health Information (CIHI), being able to do an activity that both strengthens my knees and helps control my weight, is a very good thing. According to the study, the heavier we are, the more likely we are to suffer from osteoarthritis, which is a key diagnosis in joint replacement therapy. In 2003-2004, this translated into 9 out of 10 patients who had knee replacements, and 7 out of 10 patients who had a hip replaced.
Thirdly, incorporating exercise into your daily errands can eliminate another drive – the one that many of us take to the gym. I am frequently amazed at the number of vehicles (most of them SUVs and pick-ups) that crowd the parking lot at our local fitness club. At the very least, walking or biking to the gym would cut workout times in half (who needs to walk on the treadmill to warm up when you've already put in the distance getting there?) At the very best, routinely using pedal or foot power to get around could eventually eliminate the need for costly fitness club memberships altogether.

Encouraged by our grocery shopping success, I decided try biking to my office one day a week. Ten minutes to work, ten minutes back, and I even took the time to cycle home at lunch. The end result was that without adding any time to my day, I managed to squeeze in 40 minutes of good cardiovascular exercise.

As I was breezing home on my bike yesterday, I noticed something else, too. The houses and gardens that are usually framed by my windshield came into full view. Traveling at the speed of pedal, I discovered a new found appreciation for the beauty of my own neighborhood.


Car Free Day is an annual event celebrated by 100 million people on every continent and supported by the European Union, the United Nations, the Government of Canada and the leaders of 1500 cities around the world.

To read the Canadian Institute for Health Information report on the links between obesity, osteoarthritis and joint replacement, go to Canadian Institute for Health Information

How safe a rider are you? To find out, take The Canada Safety Council's bike safety quiz. has a wealth of information about cars including a great guide to buying fuel-efficient vehicles and improving gas consumption with your existing car.

Monday, September 12, 2005

Slow Down and Save

Our family owns two vehicles. The first, a very fuel efficient Volkswagen Golf, has been our primary commuting and errands car for over ten years. The second, a Town & Country van, was purchased several years ago when traveling anywhere as a family meant having some form of transportation that would accommodate two 6 foot plus sons, a daughter with enough books to fill the local library, and a Golden Retriever. Over the years we've tried to balance the use of the two vehicles with public transit in an attempt to save gas, money and be environmentally responsible.

The latest dramatic increase in gas prices has made us rethink this strategy. Thanks to the on-board computer on the van, we recently conducted an experiment. My mother lives exactly 150 km (93 miles) from our house. As a rule, my husband Brian sets the cruise control at 118 km/hour (73 mph), which is about the average speed of traffic. At this rate of speed, our fuel consumption averaged 21.6 miles/gal. On our return trip, Brian reduced our average speed to 113 km/hour (70 mph). Believe it or not, this improved our gas mileage to 8.5L/100 km, or 27.4 miles/gal, effectively reducing our gas consumption by a whopping 21 percent. What I found equally remarkable was that the lower speed only added an additional five minutes or so to our return trip.

At any rate, actually doing the speed limit would likely more than cover the recent hike in gas prices.

The problem is, nobody does. In order to "go with the flow" on major highways like the 401, it's necessary to travel far faster than posted limits. Reducing our speed by even 5 km/hour meant a lot more lane changing and complex driving. Despite this, Brian said that the drive home felt a lot less stressful.

Reducing speed not only saves gas, money and greenhouse gas emissions, it saves lives. According to the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), "Speeding is a factor in 31 percent of all fatal crashes, killing an average of 1,000 Americans every month. In 2003, more than 13,000 people died in speed-related crashes. NHTSA estimates that the economic cost to society of speed-related crashes is more than $40 billion each year."
The faster we go, the more dramatic the increase in deaths when we collide. 1974, the U.S. state governments reduced highway speeds that ranged from 65 to 70 mph, to 55 mph during the first oil crisis. The result was that there were 4,000 fewer traffic fatalities than in 1973. As the gas crisis faded, so did concerns about saving fuel. By the late 1980s, most speed limits had been increased to pre-crisis levels, and so had traffic deaths.

The problem is two-fold. First of all, as a society, we're hooked on speed and comfort. With the constant pressure to put more activities in the day, we tend to use our vehicles as personal time machines, using ever-increasing horsepower to save time. According to Canada's Office of Energy Efficiency, "If horsepower in car engines had stayed at 1990 levels, today's models would be about 33 percent more efficient, saving owners more than $400 per 20,000 kilometres in fuel costs."
We also demand more creature comforts from our home-away-from-home. Vans and SUVs have rapidly replaced the family sedan, further increasing gas consumption. In total, Canada's transportation sector increased fuel consumption by 26 percent between 1990 and 2003.
The second problem is greed. Oil companies represent some of the largest and most powerful corporations in the world. Reducing fuel consumption reduces corporate profits. Furthermore, reducing fuel consumption also reduces government taxes – something the Canadian government refused to do, even though we currently have federal budgetary surplus. In 1999 alone, Canadian gasoline taxes collected at the pump totalled approximately $ 10 billion.
As the old saying goes, "When the people lead, eventually the leaders follow." If everyone simply stuck to the posted speed limits, we could save more money than recent fuel hikes cost, dramatically reduce highway fatalities (and perhaps insurance costs), and make substantial process toward meeting Kyoto's greenhouse gas emissions targets. The choice is ours.


The US-based Insurance Institute for Highway Safety has compiled some interesting statistics about speed and mortality rates, among other things.

For more statistics on fuel consumption, and tips on how to reduce what you spend at the pump, visit Canada's Office of Energy Efficiency