The following Victoria Day weekend guest post is by Gideon Forman, executive director of the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment.

The Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment (CAPE) – along with nurses and leading health charities – is running an advertising campaign to support renewable power and the speedy phase-out of coal-fired electricity. It’s a project unique in the country. Under the heading, “Doctors and Nurses Support Green Energy”, the ads – which are appearing in 15 newspapers as well as in magazines and online – tell readers that last year Ontario’s coal plants caused over 150,000 illnesses and over 300 deaths. They state: “Ontario doctors, nurses, and other health professionals support energy conservation combined with wind and solar power – to help us move away from coal.”
 
The ads are signed by organizations — such as the Registered Nurses’ Association of Ontario, the Lung Association, CAPE, and the Asthma Society of Canada – which represent literally tens of thousands of health professionals. These professionals have long condemned air pollution for its damage to human well-being. In a landmark report entitled “No Breathing Room” the Canadian Medical Association calculated that, in 2008, air pollution killed 21,000 Canadians and it projected that, by 2031, the “number of deaths due to long-term exposure to air pollution will be 710,000.”
 
But CAPE’s campaign is different because it does more than just assess harm – as important as that is. This initiative, for the first time in Canada, sees health professionals  combating air pollution by urging both an end to coal and an embrace of renewables. Ontario has promised to close its coal-burning plants by 2014 but doctors and nurses want it to happen much sooner. They point out the province has more than enough coal-free power to close the plants right now. And they emphasize that coal is a disaster from start to finish. (Ontario is by no means the only offender. In Nova Scotia and Saskatchewan over 50 per cent of electricity comes from this fossil fuel; in Alberta the figure is 82 per cent.)
 
Coal mining devastates landscapes by literally removing the tops of mountains. Burning the fuel releases a host of poisons including lead and mercury (neurotoxins), chromium and arsenic (carcinogens), and components of acid rain (sulphur dioxide and nitrogen oxides). Perhaps most worrying is its contribution to climate change: Ontario’s coal facilities emit the greenhouse gas equivalent of several million automobiles. If global warming is the world’s most pressing environmental threat, banning coal is job number one. In an article he published last Spring, Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman had this to say about the issue: “James Hansen, the renowned climate scientist who deserves much of the credit for making global warming an issue in the first place, has argued forcefully that most of the climate-change problem comes down to just one thing, burning coal…”
 
This is why doctors, nurses, and health charities have launched an unprecedented campaign for this fuel’s phase-out and the development of renewable energy. Unlike coal plants, wind and solar operations do not contribute to brain damage and cancer nor do they produce acid rain, climate change, and smog. That’s a hopeful thought as we approach this year’s Clean Air Day (June 8). And it’s a good thing to remember the next time someone attacks green energy as “unsafe”.