Breathing in the air in one Canadian city is equivalent to smoking one to two cigarettes a week, according to a two-year air quality study.
The study was done in Hamilton and found that there were higher-than-expected levels of a cancer-causing compound in the air.
Matthew Adams, an air contaminants researcher who coordinated the study with the city of Hamilton, says the city has been "burdened with air pollution-related issues for a long time" due to the steel manufacturing that happens in the area along with the heavy traffic flowing through the area.
As part of the research, Adams says they looked at different types of pollutants, including nitrogen dioxide and sulphur dioxide.
While nothing was too out of the ordinary there, the researcher says what really surprised him was the level of benzo(a)pyrene in the air.
"We saw that benzo(a)pyrene was above the Ontario ambient air quality criteria and benzo(a)pyrene is a known carcinogen so there's definitely concern there," Adams explained.
"We were expecting to see it somewhat similar to sulphur dioxide, elevated at the industrial centre, and dissipate fairly quickly as you moved away from it. But what we see is this pollutant appears to be impacting the city as a whole based on concentrations above the Ontario criteria, so that was quite surprising," he added.
"I would have really only expected to see it in the downtown as opposed to throughout the entire city."
While the findings may seem startling to people who live in or around Hamilton, not everyone is phased by it.
In an interview with Global News, Jeff Vansickle, who has lived in Hamilton his entire life, says the air quality has gotten better over time so he's not too concerned by what the study found.
"It’s a lot better than it used to be,” he told Global.
"When I was younger, the pollution in Hamilton was so bad, in the summer on a day with no breeze, you couldn’t see a block."
Adams is also expressing there is no need to panic for people who live in Hamilton and that there is more that needs to be studied and done now that they have the findings of their study.
What is a carcinogen?
A carcinogen is a "substance, organism or agent" that is capable of causing cancer, according to the National Human Genome Research Institute.
Carcinogens can happen naturally in the environment, like with ultraviolet rays from the sun or can be created by humans through the exhaust fumes generated by vehicles or cigarette smoke.
According to Delaware's Health and Social Services, benzo(a)pyrene is carcinogenic and has been linked to cancers like skin, lung and bladder cancer. A person can also suffer from short-term effects like skin rashes and eye irritation.
In terms of the air quality study done in Hamilton, Adams says he doesn't believe people in Hamilton should be "overly concerned" in regards to the carcinogens they are breathing in.
That's because he says the exposure is a lifetime cancer risk, meaning it wouldn't cause an immediate issue.
"The standard is quite low at a very low concentration. It's based on a one in a million increase in your risk of cancer," he said.
"[There is] maybe a bit more risk than one in a million, but in the areas near the industry, that answer is, you know, hard because we haven't done a cancer study, but just based on previous work, it looks like more of like a one in 10,000 risk of you know people that are exposed to that there'd be about one in 10,000 for cancer cases. So not a lot."
How do the results compare with other Canadian cities?
Adams says currently there is no data to compare the study's findings to other Canadian cities.
"Many cities in Ontario would sit below that air quality standard in most places or right at it, depending on where you are, but I don't even really have anything to compare to," he noted.
When asked if there are other cities in Ontario that should be tested in the same way as Hamilton was, Adams highlights a couple of areas.
Whereas Hamilton is home to the largest emitter of pollutants like benzo(a)pyrene in Ontario with the Dofasco steel plant, the second largest emitter is Stelco near Lake Erie and Algoma Steel in Sault Ste. Marie.
What changes need to happen to decrease air pollutants?
The good news for Hamilton, according to Adams, is that the Dofasco steel plant is undergoing major changes in the process of how it's producing steel and in such a direction that there "should be no benzo(a)pyrene."
"This would be going from Ontario's largest emitter of benzo(a)pyrene to just completely removing that from the Hamilton air shed hopefully in the next five years."
If it goes as planned, Adams says that would significantly decline the "contaminant across the whole city."
"We do have some other emission sources in Hamilton but having Ontario's greatest emitter adjacent to where people live isn't a good thing right now," Adams said.
The Toronto air contaminants researcher says other ways to reduce transportation-related air pollution also highlights the need for electric vehicles, especially in provinces like Ontario.
He notes another great way to mitigate pollutants in the air would be seeing additional modes of public transit systems like the light rail system that he says has been discussed in Hamilton for years.
Adams says industries like steel plants also need to abide by Ontario regulations when it comes to how many pollutants they are emitting into the air.
"We need to really start pushing industry to meet these regulations that already exist, because we would probably see remarkable changes, improvements in air quality if companies just abided by what the current regulations are."
A report on the findings is in the works, with Adams saying the first step was having multiple engagements with community members in Hamilton where they discussed the results. It will be made public in the coming months.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
This article's cover image was used for illustrative purposes only.