Idling: spewing a toxic mix of pollutants

An anti-idling sign at the Experimental Farm  
Photo: Jennifer Humphries

Idling: spewing a toxic mix of pollutants

By Iman Sattar

As a frequent walker who enjoys the pleasures of strolling for leisure and for doing errands, I tend to notice many things that are difficult to evade or ignore. Among them is motor vehicle idling, where drivers needlessly run their engines when they are not moving. This occurs at schools, drive-throughs, parking lots, malls, construction sites and in residential areas, and it is especially prevalent during the winter, even when the weather is mild and warming up a car isn’t essential. While the impacts of idling may seem minimal to one idler, the cumulative impact of idling on our air quality, environment, wallets and the health and well-being of our community should be a concern for everyone.

Recent preliminary studies during the COVID-19 pandemic have found a correlation between respiratory illnesses triggered by poor air quality and susceptibility to the virus. While Ottawa’s air quality is good compared to many other cities, a 2020 report published by Ecology Ottawa identified pollution hotspots across the city (look for Breathe Easy Report at The hotspots included schools and retirement homes such as Villagia in the Glebe, where nitrogen dioxide and ozone levels were found to be significantly higher than what is acceptable under World Health Organization guidelines. This should raise concern, given that nitrogen dioxide has been linked to a range of negative health effects, including premature deaths, development of asthma among children, lung inflammation and increased hospital admissions. In 2018, roughly 44 per cent of Ottawa’s greenhouse gas emissions came from transportation, primarily from gasoline (27 per cent) and diesel (11 per cent), according to Andrea Flowers, senior project manager in engineering systems with the City of Ottawa.

There are many ways to improve air quality, such as driving less, switching to electric vehicles, planting trees and idling less. According to Natural Resources Canada, “if Canadian drivers of light-duty vehicles avoided unnecessary idling for just three minutes every day of the year, we would collectively save 630 million litres of fuel, worth $630 million (assuming a fuel cost of $1 per litre)! Just as important, over the period of a year, we would prevent 1.4 million tonnes of CO2 from entering the atmosphere. That’s the equivalent of taking 320,000 cars off of the road!”

Although the city adopted an Idling Control Bylaw in 2007, it has been ineffective due to its many exceptions, the challenges of enforcement (it is only investigated in response to a complaint, and the idler is usually gone before an officer arrives), lack of anti-idling signage and a lack of public education to raise awareness.

A Glebe lawn sign   Photo: Liz McKeen

As a Sustainable Development Goals ambassador with the United Nations Association in Canada, I began to collaborate on an initiative with the Glebe Community Association to raise awareness of the impacts of idling. We engaged with the local community, speaking with enthusiastic parents from school councils in the Glebe, including Corpus Christi and Glebe Collegiate, and the city’s Safer Roads program. They offered many great ideas and suggestions to reduce idling in the city. We are now considering ways to implement some of these ideas, such as a contest to design anti-idling signs, making signs widely available for residents and schools, raising awareness on social media, pledge forms, decals and more.

Everyone has the power to help build a cleaner and healthier future for neighbours and families. If you are interested in getting involved, please stay tuned for our upcoming anti-idling initiative.


Iman Sattar is a recent graduate of the University of Ottawa, a member of the GCA Environment Committee and a UNAC Ambassador. For information on the Glebe Community Association’s work to curb idling, email us at


Kids’ health:
the air they breathe

Smog is air pollution you can see, originally named for the mixture of smoke and fog in the air. But most air pollutants are invisible, and invisible air pollutants are among the most dangerous to our health.

Here’s what Ottawa Public Health says about children and smog.

  • Children are more likely to experience respiratory effects of smog such as wheezing, coughing, and shortness of breath because:
  • Children breathe in more air than adults. They also breathe faster than adults, especially during strenuous activity and play.
  • Children tend to breathe through their mouths and by-pass the natural filtering system in the nose. This allows large amounts of polluted air to get directly into their lungs.
  • Children spend more time outside than adults.
  • Smog increases a child’s risk of getting sick. Children are more susceptible to infections than adults, and smog reduces the respiratory system’s ability to fight infection and remove foreign particles.
  • Smog can make the symptoms of childhood asthma and allergies worse.
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