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Traffic moves along the Gardiner Expressway in Toronto during rush hour on Nov. 11, 2014.

iStockPhoto / Getty Images

Electric cars are better for the planet, but they might be better for our health, too. A recent report looking at the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area (GTHA) shows that replacing all fossil-fuel-powered cars and buses with electric vehicles (EVs) could prevent 456 deaths a year.

So if we all switched to electric cars tomorrow, it could save thousands of lives.

That's because every gas- and diesel-powered car pumps pollution – including nitrogen oxides and fine particulate matter – into the air.

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“We know traffic is a source of air pollution, but we didn’t know how significant it would be,” says Marianne Hatzopoulou, the University of Toronto associate professor who led the study. “So now we know EVs will not only achieve greenhouse-gas-emission reductions, but they also have significant health benefits.” That pollution makes us sick. Health Canada estimates that air pollution causes nearly 15,000 premature deaths in Canada every year, with nearly 3,000 of them in the GTHA.

Hatzopoulou and her team ran computer simulations of different scenarios, including replacing 20 per cent, 50 per cent and 100 per cent of the cars in the GTHA with EVs, switching to electric buses and switching to newer, lower-emission transport trucks.

In every scenario, the move to less-polluting vehicles saved lives.

"Every EV on the road has an impact," Hatzopoulou says.

For instance, switching to EVs saved 313 lives a year, switching to more efficient transport trucks saved 275 lives and switching to electric buses saved 143 lives.

Exhaustive study?

The study also looks at the impact of the social costs of pollution-caused deaths from illnesses such as lung cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and heart disease.

Just in the GTHA, switching from gas to electric could reduce those costs, which include medical care, by $2.4-billion a year.

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The study accounts for pollution drifting in from the United States and for emissions from power plants that burn natural gas.

“Electric vehicles shift air pollution from the road to the power plant,” Hatzopoulou says. “If you live near a natural-gas plant, you might experience a bit worse air pollution there.”

Switching to EVs everywhere in Canada would mean cleaner air and fewer deaths. But the exact impact in each province would depend on where the power come from.

“We have relatively clean energy-production in most provinces,” Hatzopoulou says.

The GTHA results wouldn't apply in Alberta, for instance, where the bulk of electricity still comes from natural gas and coal.

EVs not enough?

Hatzopoulou says 100-per-cent EV adoption might not sound realistic right now, but we’re headed in that direction.

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"We have a lot of countries saying they will stop selling [gas-powered] cars in the next 20 or 30 or 50 years," she says. "Eventually, theoretically, we will be at 100 per cent."

But EVs aren’t the only solution. We need to get more cars off the road, take more transit and shift more to active transportation, such as walking and cycling, Hatzopoulou says.

“Technology is not going to save us; we need to change our behaviours.”

During COVID-19, there have been reports of cleaner air. But there have been no published studies yet showing exactly how much cleaner it is, Hatzopoulou says.

Still, the pandemic has shown the impact of how we get around, or whether we get around at all, on the air we breathe.

“Until COVID, we were talking about things like the impact of telecommuting very academically, and now we’ve seen how it can make a difference,” Hatzopoulou says.

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