Canadian Environmental Health Atlas

Understanding Our Environment is Key to Promoting Health and Preventing Disease

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David Bates

David Bates

David Bates was a young doctor working in the UK at St Bartholomew’s Hospital in 1952 when a thick sulphurous smoky fog descended on London for 4 days in December. Unbeknown to him at the time, a coroner noted that the morgues were full. But in a city that had been subject to deadly bombings and attendant smoke, and was used to fogs, no one bothered to connect the cold fog—and resultant increase in the burning of coal— with the full morgues.1

During the next 2 months, 12,000 people died as a result of this fog. The incident ultimately led to new laws on clean air, and it sparked Bates’ interest in respiratory physiology. In 1956, he moved to McGill University in Montreal, Canada, where he studied the effects of ozone on the lung. He and his colleagues published seminal papers on ventilation and lung physiology, and showed how the lung was damaged by environmental pollutants. Jon Samet, professor of epidemiology at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, met him in the late 1970s. By then, Bates had shifted his focus to the epidemiology linking pollution and lung disease. “David was a key figure in beginning to understand how the lung was damaged by environmental agents like tobacco and air pollution”, Samet said.1

Throughout his career, Bates published several prominent papers on air pollution – one explored air pollution and hospital admissions in southern Ontario,2 another looked at health indices of the adverse effects of air pollution, a publication that later influenced the US Environmental Protection Agency’s air pollution standards.13 He also continued to study the impact of ozone exposure and air pollution on children’s health.4 Bates helped plan and advise the Children’s Health Study on air pollution at the University of Southern California – one of the leading institutions in the world studying the health impact of air pollution - and advocated for stronger public health policies that would protect children from air pollution.

Bates became the Dean of Medicine at the University of British Columbia, where he was active in working for improved air quality in British Columbia’s Lower Mainland.  Following his retirement, Bates continued his efforts in air pollution; in fact, most of his work on air pollution and health was done after he “retired.” “He knew more about more aspects of the health effects of air pollution than anyone I knew”, said University of Southern California colleague John Peters.1

Through his innovative research and advocacy in environmental health, Dr. David Bates helped guide environmental policies and contributed to our understanding of the impact air pollution has on our health. He also helped train some of the leading experts in environmental health in Canada and urged others to go beyond the scientific articles and campaign for change. Dr. Michael Brauer, an accomplished air quality researcher at the University of British Columbia, best describes Bates’ impact on air pollution and health: “Everywhere I have traveled throughout the world, when I mentioned that I was from the University of British Columbia or Vancouver, people ask me if I knew David Bates. He was often referred to as the 'Grandfather of Air Pollution Epidemiology'. Here in Vancouver, in Canada, and throughout the world, everyone who values clean air owes a lot to David Bates".

  • 1. a. b. c. d. Oransky I. David V Bates. Lancet. 2007;369:1984. Excerpts reprinted from The Lancet, 369, Oransky I. David V Bates. p.1984 Copyright 2007, with permission from Elsevier.
  • 2. Bates DV, Sizto R. Air pollution and hospital admissions in Southern Ontario: the acid summer haze effect. Environ Res. 198;43(2):317-331.
  • 3. Bates DV. Health indices of the adverse effects of air pollution: the question of coherence. Environ Res. 1992;59(2):336-349.
  • 4. Bates DV. Ozone – 42 years later. Can Respir J. 2006 Jul-Aug; 13(5): 261–265.