Translating knowledge into action: Understanding the health effects of industrial air pollution

Industrial emissions, or pollutants released into the atmosphere from industrial activities, contribute to local and regional air pollution. In fact, major industries, such as petroleum refineries, power plants, metal smelters and pulp and paper mills are significant emitters of three of the most common outdoor air pollutants particulate matter, sulfur oxides and nitrogen oxides.

However, information on whether or not these air pollutants may be related to the onset of diseases – such as asthma, hypertension and diabetes – is still limited. That’s where the work of Dr. Ling Liu comes in. “Understanding the local link between air pollution sources, air quality and health is vital for helping all Canadians live in communities with clean air,” says Dr. Liu.

Dr. Liu and her team collaborate with researchers in the provinces and various universities to develop and share knowledge related to air pollution and population health. Her research helps set priorities to assess, manage, and communicate air pollution and health risks, and to measure the effectiveness of policies related to air quality. As such, her team works closely with scientists in risk assessment and with regulators so that they have the latest scientific evidence and can take action on air quality management.

Recently, Dr. Liu collaborated with the Institut national de santé publique du Québec, the Université de Montréal and the University of Toronto to identify the health impacts of industrial air pollution in children and adults in Quebec. They gathered more than ten years’ worth of data on emissions of air pollutants from local industrial facilities, land use, and weather. They then input these data into an atmospheric dispersion model to simulate the communities’ ambient levels of air pollution. The team analyzed the links between these pollutants and disease cases in the surrounding communities.

“Thanks to this research, we were able to demonstrate significant associations between industrial air pollution and childhood asthma, as well as hypertension and diabetes in adults,” explains Dr. Liu. To ensure that the associations between air pollutants and health outcomes were not confounded by other potential risk factors, the researchers adjusted the results for a number of these factors, such as socioeconomic status, cigarette smoke, traffic-related air pollution and cross-border pollution. Dr. Liu’s work plays a central role in bringing the data together and translating the numbers into useful tools.

Dr. Liu’s projects contribute to national strategies for environmental health science research and regulatory activities, giving policymakers the vital information they need to implement health care policies and environmental regulations that protect Canadians. Taking positive action to reduce the health burden of air pollution requires meaningful and accurate data, as well as ongoing monitoring to measure the effectiveness of mitigation strategies. Along with her team, Dr. Liu is proud to be able to help Canadians lead healthier lives.


Let’s draw attention to the incredible work of women in science! This article is part of a month-long series celebrating women in science, from International Day of Women and Girls in Science (February 11) to International Women’s Day (March 8).