Doctor group files health complaint against controversial trucking route

Asthma, lung cancer among health risks posed by diesel fumes, doctor says

Air pollution from a major trucking route through Ottawa’s Lowertown neighbourhood is hazardous to the health of residents, a group of physicians says in a recent complaint filed with the province.

The Ontario committee of the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment filed the complaint under the Ontario Health Protection and Promotion Act on Thursday.

The complaint calls for an investigation into the controversial transport truck route that runs across the McDonald-Cartier Bridge and through several Ottawa streets, including major thoroughfare King Edward Avenue.

“The core that these trucks are getting routed through is home to many people,” Dr. Sehjal Bhargava, a resident physician at the University of Ottawa, told CBC’s All in a Day Friday.

“Having this amount of exposure to harmful matters has such big implications on health that are quite worrisome to me.”

The complaint represents the latest in a series of arguments for why the route ought to be cleared of heavy truck traffic — a long-standing point of contention in the community.

‘Dangers of air pollution’

Bhargava said prolonged exposure to diesel exhaust can worsen cardiovascular and respiratory conditions, such as asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder, and may also lead to lung cancer or premature death.

Vulnerable groups, such as people who are homeless, are more likely to be exposed to the exhaust, she added.

Dr. Sehjal Bhargava said vulnerable groups, such as people who are homeless, are at greatest risk of the negative health effects of diesel pollution. (Tayyaba Bhatti)

In an open letter addressed to Mayor Mark Sutcliffe, environmental law charity Ecojustice, which is representing the physician group, says research suggests air quality along the route exceeds national and international standards.

“Now is the time for the city to take effective action to protect downtown Ottawans from the dangers of air pollution caused by heavy trucks,” the group wrote.

The Ontario Health Protection and Promotion Act requires that Ottawa’s medical officer of health investigate the complaint to determine whether the hazard exists.

‘Not there because they want to be’

Stephen Laskowski, president of the Ontario Trucking Association, said the industry has supported regulations in the past that limit emissions on heavy-duty trucks.

Any transport trucks built since those regulations have come into effect, he said, emit a “minuscule” amount of harmful pollution.

Rideau Street, pictured here, is one of several Lowertown streets transport trucks are forced to drive down. (CBC)

Mike Millian, president of the Private Motor Truck Council of Canada, says the industry has spent “a lot of money” in recent decades to limit its environmental footprint.

“You can hold a bedsheet over the end of a truck stack now,” he said. “And when you take it off, it’s still white.”

A recent Health Canada report, however, says the health risks of exposure to diesel exhaust “have long been recognized,” and that Canada’s current diesel fleet is “dominated by engines pre-dating the most recent emission standards.”

Millian said he understands the concerns of residents — and added many truckers feel the same way. Truckers and trucking companies would much prefer to take a bypass than to sit idling in heavy traffic.

“Trust me, those trucks are not there because they want to be,” he said.

Finding solutions

The route through Lowertown has been the subject of controversy for decades.

Past proposals to fix the problem include a sixth interprovincial bridge that would have connected Ottawa to Gatineau over Kettle Island and a tunnel costing up to $2 billion that would have connected the Macdonald-Cartier Bridge to Highway 417.

Each has been met with either firm public opposition, a loss of funding — or both.

“I understand this is a busy trucking corridor,” Bhargava said. “But when we’re talking about the health of so many people, I think it’s imperative that we take quick action — and now.”