Up to 21,000 Canadians will die this year due to air pollution, with 3,000 of those deaths due to short-term exposure to smog.

The heart-stopping figures are some of the key findings in the first large-scale report on the impact of air pollution across Canada.

It finds that by 2031, almost 90,000 Canadians will have died from the acute short-term effects of pollution and more than 700,000 will be dead from long term exposure.

The economic impact of those deaths will cost Canada $8 billion in 2008 and over $250 billion by 2031.

The study "No Breathing Room: National Illness Costs of Air Pollution" was completed by the Canadian Medical Association and released on Wednesday.

"Much has been made about the poor air quality in China and the effect it is having on our athletes," CMA President Dr. Brian Day told a news teleconference on Wednesday.

"But we have a serious home-grown pollution problem right here and Canadians, ranging from the very young to the very old, are paying the price."

The study found that while most of the pollution-related deaths in Canada were due to long-term exposure, a growing number can be attributed to short-term, acute exposure to heavy smog.

Even in brief doses, heavy pollution can affect the ability of blood to coagulate, making clotting more likely and giving rise to heart attacks and strokes, said Ted Boadway, CMA's technical advisor on health and the environment.

"Both of which rise during pollution episodes and in the few days afterwards and explain in significant part the number of acute deaths due to air pollution," Boadway told reporters.

In the long-term, he said, the harmful ingredients contained in air pollution can weaken the muscle cells in artery walls, particularly in the heart, causing a number of cardiovascular problems and potentially death.

Day described the report as a road map detailing where the country stands now in terms of pollution, and how much more severe the situation will become if policy makers don't act now to improve air quality.

The CMA used a model developed by the Ontario Medical Association to come up with its results. The organization took the model and expanded it to a national level, using the "highly predictive" pollutants particulate matter and ozone as measuring sticks to judge air quality

It revealed that Ontario and Quebec receive a heavier dose of smog than the rest of the country, and as a result residents of those provinces are suffering.

In fact, 70 per cent of the premature deaths occur in Central Canada, even though Ontario and Quebec comprise only 62 per cent of Canada's population.

And most of that smog doesn't even originate in either of the provinces.

"Canada gets a fair bit of pollution from the American midwest which drifts north, comes across through Ontario and continues right on through to Quebec," Boadway said, adding people who live outside of cities also get blasted with smog.

"Sometimes people in rural areas think they're escaping very nicely because they don't live in downtown wherever. The fact is these masses of air pollution move across the countryside and some of our worst air pollution occurs in rural areas because it just happens to be downwind."

The study looked at four areas: lost productivity costs, healthcare costs, economic damage to quality of life and the economic damage to the country due to loss of life. 

  • In Ontario alone, lost productivity will cost Canada $349,400 this year. By 2031 that will total over $9 million in damage.
  • Healthcare costs in the province will be $221,800 this year, up to almost $6.5 million total by 2031.
  • Economic damage to quality of life will hit $194,100 in Ontario in 2008, up to $265,000 in 2031 and totalling almost $5.5 million by that time.
  • Economic damage due to loss of life will cost $3,644,100 in 2008, rising to $6,367,200 in 2031, and totalling $115,674,500 by 2031.

Other key findings of the report include the following:

  • In 2008, 80 per cent of those who die due to air pollution will be over 65.
  • 25 Canadians under 19 will die from short-term acute pollution exposure this year.
  • In 2008 there will more than 9,000 hospital visits and 30,000 emergency room visits, and 620,000 doctor's office visits, stemming from air pollution.

"This report shows for the first time the tragic effects of the toxic air that we breathe, whether it is in my hometown of Vancouver, or across the country in St. John's," Dr. Day said.

Health Canada and Environment Canada contributed to the report.