EV shift could prevent thousands of premature deaths in kids, report claims

Click to play video: 'What you need to know about electric vehicles in Canada'
What you need to know about electric vehicles in Canada
WATCH: What you need to know about electric vehicles in Canada – Feb 9, 2024

Switching to electric vehicles by 2050 could prevent thousands of premature deaths, along with millions of asthma attacks and respiratory illnesses in children in the United States, reveals a new report.

The American Lung Association (ALA) released the report Wednesday advocating for a widespread transition to zero-emission vehicles and electricity, emphasizing the substantial health improvements for children. By 2050, this transition could prevent 2.79 million pediatric asthma attacks, alleviate numerous respiratory symptoms and save hundreds of infant lives in the U.S., the report said.

“Air pollution harms children’s health and wellbeing today, and the transportation sector is a leading source of air pollution. Vehicle emissions are also the nation’s biggest source of carbon pollution that drives climate change and associated public health harms,” Harold Wimmer, president and CEO of the American Lung Association, said in a media release on Wednesday.

Traffic is one of the biggest sources of carbon pollution in U.S., making up 28 per cent of the greenhouse emissions in the country, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

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The report comes just months after Canada outlined a roadmap to have all cars on the market produce zero emissions by 2035.

In Canada, the government says traffic-related air pollution contributes every year to 1,200 premature deaths, 210,000 asthma symptom days and 2.7 million acute respiratory symptom days. It’s also associated with the development of allergies, childhood leukemia and worsening pediatric asthma.

Click to play video: 'Pregnant women exposed to traffic pollution could lead to asthma for child'
Pregnant women exposed to traffic pollution could lead to asthma for child

The ALA report, called Boosting Health for Children: Benefits of Zero-Emission Transportation and Electricity, outlines the projected health impacts if all new passenger vehicles sold in the U.S. become zero-emission by 2035, and all new trucks follow suit by 2040. It also projects that the U.S. electric grid will be powered by clean, non-combustion renewable energy by 2035.

According to the report, the transition would not only prevent millions of pediatric asthma attacks by 2050 but also:

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  • 147,000 pediatric acute bronchitis cases
  • 2.67 million pediatric upper respiratory symptoms
  • 1.87 million pediatric lower respiratory symptoms
  • 508 infant mortality cases

A 2021 report by Health Canada estimates that air pollution contributes to 15,300 premature deaths per year in Canada. This includes an estimated 6,600 premature deaths in Ontario, 4,000 in Quebec, 1,900 in British Columbia and 1,400 in Alberta.

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Air pollution is recognized globally as a major contributor to the development of disease and premature death and represents the largest environmental risk factor to human health, the Health Canada report said. Exposure to air pollution increases the risk of premature mortality from heart disease, stroke and lung cancer.

As climate change ramps up, the ALA report points out that we can expect extreme weather events to hit harder. And with more wildfire smoke, allergens, and heatwaves in the mix, the effects on children are bound to get worse.

Why children are more susceptible to air pollution

One of the main reasons children are more susceptible to air pollution is because their bodies, especially their lungs, are still developing, the ALA said.

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The growth and development of a child’s lungs and breathing ability start in utero and continue into early adulthood, the report said. The body’s defences that help adults fight off infections are still developing in children.

The protective barrier surrounding the brain is not fully developed in young children, while their nasal passages aren’t as effective at filtering out pollutants.

The report highlighted that children breathe more rapidly than adults and inhale a greater volume of air relative to their body weight.

Additionally, they tend to spend extended periods outdoors and engage in more physical activity, resulting in increased exposure to outdoor air pollution compared to adults.

What are the health impacts on children?

The health risks for children exposed to polluted air are wide-ranging and long-lasting, the report warned.

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Breathing polluted air can lead to immediate respiratory issues such as coughing, wheezing and exacerbation of conditions like asthma. Long-term exposure can hinder lung growth and function and raise the likelihood of developing asthma. Pollution exposure in children is also linked to neurodevelopmental disorders, decreased IQ, pediatric cancers and elevated risks for chronic adult diseases like cardiovascular issues, the report said.

Air pollution is also a concern for pregnant people.

Click to play video: 'Vehicle-produced air pollution connected to childhood asthma: study'
Vehicle-produced air pollution connected to childhood asthma: study

Exposure to ozone and particle pollution during pregnancy significantly heightens the risks of premature birth, low birth weight and stillbirth, the report said.

These dangers are even more pronounced in high-risk pregnancies, such as those involving people of colour or individuals with chronic conditions like asthma. It can also cause preeclampsia and  placental damage, disrupting fetal growth and development.

Fetal health may also be impacted in several ways by environmental contaminants that have been shown to cross the placenta, the report warned.

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Canada's electric vehicle goal

The ALA report concluded that policymakers at the federal, state and local levels must focus strategies to rapidly move away from combustion technologies and toward zero-emission
technologies to best protect health today and ensure children have safe and sustainable communities in which to grow.

The U.S. has set a target for half of all new vehicles sold in the country by 2030 to be zero-emissions vehicles. In Canada, government leaders have set similar goals.

On Dec. 19, 2023, the Liberal government said that all new cars will have to be zero emissions by 2035.

The Canadian government is also requiring 20 per cent of all cars, SUVs, crossovers and light-duty pickups sold by carmakers to emit zero emissions by 2026. By 2030 60 per cent of all cars sold must be zero emissions.

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Click to play video: 'Guilbeault lays out roadmap for 2035 electric vehicle targets'
Guilbeault lays out roadmap for 2035 electric vehicle targets

The government’s strategy also states regulations are designed to bring more EVs into the market, which coupled with incentives from the federal and some provincial governments will make them more affordable for lower-income Canadians.

Environment and Climate Change Minister Steven Guilbeault said during a media conference in December that he expects EVs to reach similar prices as conventional vehicles by the late 2020s — and to become cheaper over the lifespan of a vehicle.

— With files from Global News’ Nathanial Dove

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