Heat draws attention to need for ethanol

First published: Friday, July 15, 2005

As Northumberland County residents hunker down for another week of high temperatures and humidity, it is difficult to think about anything other than staying cool. The extreme weather is also taking its tolls elsewhere. The air quality forecast for this week from the Ontario Ministry of Environment says it will be moderately poor for our area, meaning a smog warning expected for each day.

Not only is it hot. For some, it means they are going to have tough time breathing. And with no rain expected for foreseeable future, there is no relief. It is also deadly.

Few of us think about what this means when a smog warning is issued. It is expected 49 people will die prematurely in Northumberland County because of the smog, according to the Ontario Medical Association’s recent study on air pollution. And if nothing is done, it is expected 86 unnecessary, preventable deaths will occur by 2026.

But it goes far beyond preventable deaths. It costs our community money. In fact, it is a lot of money.

It is expects 140 people will be admitted to local hospitals for smog-related reasons and another 448 will come into emergency rooms seeking relief. Every one of those visits costs taxpayers, to the tune of $3.04 million. This is more than double the anticipated $1.4 million shortfall officials at Northumberland Hills hospital are predicting this year.

Then there is the economic cost. There are 171,070 days of lost employees time, translating into $2.18 million lost in productivity. It doesn’t take a MBA grad to figure out, the literal cost is too high.

The Ontario Medical Association released a significant study last month saying 5,800 deaths can be blamed on air pollution. It is condemning the provincial government for not taking smog seriously. New records in poor air quality days are being set. For the first six months of this year, there were 30 smog days (including a stunning one on February), surpassing the record 27 for the entire year of 2002.

It is far too easy to blame our American neighbours for this situation. Already studies blame hundreds of coal thermal stations, industries and tens of millions of vehicles in the United States for the poor air migrating north. But the medical association’s study says it is only half the story. The other half of the problem finds its source in Ontario. This includes common air pollutants like sulphur dioxide, ozone, nitrogen dioxide and other fine particulate matter.

The province has taken a significant step forward. Premier Dalton McGuinty announced last week a $520 million plan to increase the amount of ethanol in all gas sold in Ontario by 2007. Ethanol production plants will be created in Sarnia, Chatham, Brantford, Collingwood and Cornwall.

The plan would be beneficial to both rural and urban residents. Farmers will have new markets for corn, a key ingredient in the production of the gasoline additive. Also, urban constituents will be happy with the positive environmental impact.

The plan is drawing strong criticism from certain sectors. There are those who question the supply, when Canadian corn prices sit at around $4 a bushel, while American prices sit artificially low due to high subsidies. Michigan-grown corn is selling for $1.70 per bushel. It will be hard for buyers to ignore this price difference.

Also, Ontario farmers are growing half-a-million fewer acres of corn today than they did 20 years ago.

It is said Henry Ford designed the Model T to run on ethanol. In those early years, ethanol competed equally with gasoline. It is time for those days to return. Ethanol must be offered at the service stations side-by-side with gasoline, once again.

But that is not all. Coal fired power plants must be shut down and alternatives found. McGuinty broke his election promise to achieve this by 2007. And with record levels of electricity consumption during the heat wave, consumers appear unwilling to make the necessary sacrifices to reduce energy demands.

Some local businesses are taking positive steps. Wal-Mart voluntarily shut off half it lights to reduce its energy needs. Other businesses can follow suit.

Municipalities can also provide leadership by taking step to reduce air conditioning, use ethanol fuels, promote cooling centres for seniors and other steps.

We have enjoyed the ability to ignore our modern lifestyle. But now, it is becoming deadly and incredibly costly. Each one of us must take personal responsibility and act. If we fail to do so, there may become a point of no return.

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