In assessing the health effects of development activities, particularly on federal lands, the federal government considers how potential changes in ambient pollution levels may affect longer term community health. Air quality, water quality, noise, and country foods are factors that can effect the health of communities.
The main air pollutants of concern in Canada are fine particulate matter, ground-level ozone, nitrogen dioxide and sulphur dioxide. In specific regions of the country you may find issues related to a range of other pollutants such as metals.
These pollutants can be responsible for significant population health impacts, including:
- the exacerbation of asthma and related symptoms
- a range of other respiratory effects
- effects on cardiovascular outcomes including heart attacks
- the development of heart disease
- increased likelihood of admission to hospital
- premature death
Assessing risk in human health
A human health risk assessment can help identify whether there are potential health risks associated with development activities that occur in Canada. Three components must be present for a health ‘risk’ to exist:
- A hazard: means the harm that something can cause. For example, a chemical released to the environment.
- A receptor: individuals or communities
- An exposure pathway: a means by which people are exposed to the contaminant. For example, ingestion or inhalation from air, food or water.
Contamination of groundwater or surface water from development activities can impact drinking water sources which directly affects human health. In Canada, responsibility for the safety of drinking water is shared by the various levels of government.
- Provinces and territories: The principal responsibility of providing safe drinking water to the public generally rests with the provinces and territories.
- Municipalities: Municipalities usually oversee the day-to-day operations of treatment facilities and distribution systems.
- The federal government: In addition to developing the Guidelines for Canadian Drinking Water Quality, the federal government has or shares responsibility for ensuring the safety of drinking water supplies on federal lands, in federal facilities, in First Nations communities south of the 60th parallel as well as interprovincial ships, trains and airplanes.
The World Health Organization has Guidelines that provide recommended sound level limits intended to protect people from negative noise impacts. These impacts may include sleep disturbance, interference with communication, long-term annoyance and hearing impairment.
Assessing the potential noise emissions of new project development activities and how they may contribute to the cumulative noise levels in communities helps identify better strategies to mitigate their effects.
Access to country foods contributes to improved nutrition for many communities. However, diminished access and/or possible contamination of country foods can affect nutrition and lead to increased health risks.
Development activities can displace wildlife and reduce community access to country food. Contaminants in the air or the water can accumulate in the food chain and transform country food into an exposure pathway. This can disproportionally affect Indigenous communities where country foods often constitute a significant portion of the overall diet. As an example, the bio-accumulation of methyl mercury in fish and their subsequent consumption by humans is a common country food contamination pathway. The ingestion of methyl mercury is linked to neurological effects, especially in children.