Inequality is deadly

The air we breathe is killing us

New study on deaths by pollution highlights environmental injustice
Photo: Dylan Passmore

Earlier this month, we learned that more than nine million deaths per year are linked to pollution. A recent commission on pollution, whose results have been published in the respected medical journal The Lancet, paints a frightening portrait of the situation.

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Editors’ note: A version of this open letter originally appeared in Ricochet’s French edition. It has been translated into English.

Responsible for more than three times more deaths than HIV-AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria combined, pollution harms the health of millions of people around the world, including here in Quebec. As medical students in Quebec, we are sounding the alarm on what seems to be one of the biggest sources in the field of health.

Pollution kills

Human beings consume around 20,000 litres of air each day. With massive industrialization in recent decades, the air today contains a large quantity of pollutants, with as much as 140,000 new chemical products and pesticides since the 1950s, according to Lancet. The most common are nitrogen oxide, ozone and particulate matter. It’s believed that these objects, small enough to enter the respiratory system, are linked to lung cancer.

When it comes to the impact of the environment on health, inertia is no longer an option.

The recent commission brings to light what the scientific community has been studying and has already known for a few years. Asthma, cancers, problems with neurological development, mental health, birth defects, diabetes, obesity and heart and lung diseases are consequences of exposure to such pollution. And the list is ever expanding. Moreover, a study by the New England Journal of Medicine has shown that the risk of death by stroke increases proportionally with the density of population, a major mortality factor that Quebec cardiologist François Reeves has been insisting on for a number of years.

On the other hand, measures against pollution are rare: while more than 70 per cent of diseases caused by pollution are chronic diseases, measures against pollution barely figure in the plans of action for prevention and control of these diseases.


As the Lancet report underlines, 92 per cent of the deaths linked to pollution occur in countries with low and medium revenues, where the institutions of environmental regulation often lack resources and rigour. In high revenue countries, it has been estimated that the less affluent are up to three times more at risk of death caused by pollution; poor neighborhoods tend to be located closer to industrial areas and benefit less from genery to purify the air. This is one of the biggest environmental injustices, according to the principal author of the Lancet report.

Pollution is a major cause of mortality and morbidity for the population. We have in our hands an incredible opportunity to improve our health and save lives, right here in Quebec.

The good news? Reducing pollution is not only possible, but also very economically profitable. In Quebec, we need to reverse the trend and opt for innovative, green, and durable solutions. We need better national regulations on toxic pollutants, rather non-existent at the moment, as well as a stricter control on the part of Health Canada. Organizations like the Suzuki Foundation, Équiterre, and the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment have already put pressure on Health Canada to this end in the past. In our cities, and with the municipal elections in mind, think of the parties that are betting on durable initiatives for public transportation.

Furthermore, from a government point of view, we need to reinvest in our public health institutions – which have suffered from budget cuts of up to 30 per cent in recent years – so that they can continue to adequately equip us against the economic and health costs of pollution, as well as offer us solutions.

As students and doctors at the IFMSA-Quebec, the international section of the Quebec Medical Students Federation, we cannot stay silent in face of these facts. Pollution is a major cause of mortality and morbidity for the population. We have in our hands an incredible opportunity to improve our health and save lives, right here in Quebec.

Today, we are calling on diverse professionals as well on elected representatives to see an opportunity to work together with the goal of helping everyone have a chance to live longer and in better health. When it comes to the impact of the environment on health, inertia is no longer an option.

Open letter written by:

  • Djamila Saad (president of IFMSA-Québec and medical student, Université McGill)

  • Claudel P-Desrosiers (medical student, Université de Montréal)

  • Charles-Antoine Barbeau-Meunier (medical student, Université de Sherbrooke)

  • David-Dan Nguyen (medical student, Université McGill)

  • Lena Zotova (medical student, Université McGill)

  • Katia Hamitouche (medical student, Université Laval)

  • Karma Abukasm (medical student, Université de Montréal)

  • Fatima Boulmalf (medical student, Université McGill)

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