11/13/2013 09:08 EST | Updated 01/23/2014 06:58 EST

We Deserve More From the Tar Sands Than Cancer

On average, a person takes 20,000 to 30,000 breaths each day. That means that if the air around us is polluted, we can't help but take it in, and be exposed to harmful substances. Because we can't avoid it, we should do all that we can to protect our air.

Today, Environmental Defence and our partners release a new report, Reality Check: Air Pollution and the Tar Sands. The report sets the record straight on air pollution in the tar sands and describes what industry needs to do to clean up its act and keep our air safe from toxic chemicals that can make us sick, and damage our shared environment.

The report indicates that despite air quality standards lower than those set by the World Health Organization, tar sands companies frequently break many rules when it comes to air pollutants. And when they break the rules, tar sands companies aren't penalized.

Of the thousands and thousands of environmental incidents reported from 1996-2012, data shows that less than one per cent of the offences were punished as per existing rules. About two thirds of the broken rules related to air quality. With no incentive to follow the rules, companies continue to allow dangerous levels of pollutants to spew into the air.

Meanwhile, the provincial monitoring program, which is largely paid for by industry, is creating a conflict of interest.

This is especially disconcerting in the wake of a new report from the International Agency for Research on Cancer (the World Health Organization's specialized cancer agency) announcing the classification of outdoor air pollution as a cause of cancer in humans. An expert panel at the IARC reviewed the latest available scientific literature and found significant evidence to conclude that exposure to outdoor air pollution causes lung cancer and is associated with an increased risk of bladder cancer. The most recent data indicates that 223,000 deaths from lung cancer worldwide resulted from air pollution, putting it in a class with tobacco smoke and tanning beds.

A new study released in October found cancer-causing Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) at concentrations 6,000 times higher than normal in air samples taken in northern Alberta. The same study found increased incidences of rare cancers associated with these dangerously high levels of air pollution, including leukemia and non-Hodgkin's lymphoma.

Given what is known about the link between air pollution and increased risks for cancer, respiratory and heart disease, it's time for some important changes.

In the tar sands, monitoring must be built to include cumulative data of air pollutants. Meaningful investment must be made in understanding the impacts of the accumulation of airborne toxics on surrounding ecosystems and communities. This monitoring must be transparent and accessible to local stakeholders.

Perhaps most importantly, new tar sands projects should not be approved as long as air pollutants from existing production aren't being responsibly managed.

Remember that there are safer, cleaner and better ways to power our future and our economy than tar sands. Increasing energy conservation and renewable energy can power our homes and businesses.

Canadians deserve better. It's time to move away from the dirty fossil fuels that pollute our air and tip us closer to climate change. It's time to demand a future based on the clean energy economy that will power the 21st century.

Read the report here.

Find out more at

The Oil Sands and Canada's Environment