Lifting veil on toxic neighbours

Fran Maclure, in front of a closed Leaside chemical plant, became an environmental activist after being unable to catch her breath while walking in her neighbourhood.

 

Fran Maclure inhales and gasps to mimic what happened.

Two years ago, she was walking in her Leaside neighbourhood and, all of a sudden, "I couldn't catch my breath."

The problem persisted for about a year, she says. "I stopped walking outdoors." Then it went away.

Maclure lives on a leafy street of big, solid well-kept houses west of Laird Dr., the East York community's main thoroughfare.

A couple of short blocks away, along Laird and to the east, sprawls a mishmash of auto repair shops, dry cleaners, paint and chemical factories and other industries.

She figured something from one of those businesses affected her breathing, and, when things improved, "I wondered if an industry moved, or one of the polluters lowered their emissions."

Despite inquiries to her doctor, and city and provincial agencies, she hasn't been able to determine the cause, or why it disappeared.

The experience has propelled Maclure into a grassroots movement that aims to force governments into making thousands of small polluters across the city disclose how they affect the environment and human health.

As much as 35 per cent of air pollution comes from auto body shops, dry cleaners, printers and small factories that use or dispose of hazardous chemicals, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Unlike people in many parts of the United States and in other industrialized countries, Toronto residents get little information about any of them. Maclure and other advocates of what's called "community right to know" argue that must change. Disclosure is the only way, they say, to clean up the environment and protect public health. And, they argue, any level of government could do it.

The advocates face a big obstacle, though. They're trying to arouse interest in something that's not measured.

Logic and statistics suggest the small sources have a big impact: More than 9,600 businesses in Toronto handle chemicals, some of which are known to cause cancer, lung ailments or other diseases. There has been enough monitoring and studies to show that pollutants get into the air, water and soil from spills or regulated discharges. The Ontario Medical Association says bad air causes 1,700 premature deaths in Toronto each year.

Combine that with the EPA estimate and it appears to add up to a conclusion, though it's based on suspicion and not hard facts.

So Maclure spends on lot of time on research, meetings, letters and lobbying politicians.

It's a tough grind.

Toronto City Council has endorsed disclosure, in theory, for more than 20 years, but never passed a law. Another attempt is underway:  It's part of Mayor David Miller's environment plan.

The Board of Health is to submit a report and recommendations in June. A proposed bylaw might go to council in fall.

"Things are lining up very nicely," says Councillor Joe Mihevc (Ward 21, St. Paul's), who chairs the community development and recreation committee. "In the end, I think there will be a bylaw."

The issue also surfaces at Queen's Park from time to time: Early next month, a legislative committee will study a right-to-know law proposed by NDP MPP Peter Tabuns, whose Toronto-Danforth riding is just south of Leaside. The Liberal government shows little interest so, without a public uproar, the legislation is likely to die.

Maclure keeps pushing. "I want to know that I don't need to worry – to eradicate that worry," she says. "It's out there. I'm not a disaster-prone person. I'm not finicky. But I do wonder whether we're just being duped."

Paul Ferreira believes voters might be starting to take notice.

Ferreira is the NDP MPP who was the surprise winner of a by-election in February in the west-end riding of York South-Weston.

Just as surprising was the main campaign issue: community right to know.

He describes the catalyst as he stands at the edge of a muddy sports field behind Archbishop Romero Catholic High School on a bleak spring morning. The site is near the corner of Weston and Rogers Rd.

A neighbourhood of small houses and walk-up apartments and a messy array of body shops, metal platers and scrapyards sit side by side.

Unlike Leaside, there's no neat divide between residential and industrial.

Last August, a local scrapyard caught fire. Residents were told only that the smoke billowing from the building and stacks of steel drums was toxic. They were advised to stay indoors with their windows shut.

Eight homes were evacuated. Two more industries went up in flames over the winter.

People began to worry, and to ask questions about the industries in their midst, as well as conditions at the sports field, which was built over a former garbage dump.

"The fires have had the potential to be catastrophic," Ferreira says. "It hits close to home ... It's very hard to protect yourself and your family if you don't know what exists next door.

"In many places across the city, you don't know."

 Even if Toronto and the province passed a right-to-know law, it wouldn't be a bold move. Several American cities and states require disclosure, and the U.S. government collects a great deal of information that's easily accessible on the Internet.

It was another fire, this one at a Union Carbide chemical plant in Bhopal, India, that led to these measures.

When it exploded in December 1984, the plant blasted 40 tonnes of isocyanate over people who had no idea of the danger.

At least 20,000 were killed in the disaster which sparked demands around the world for the right to know about hazards.

Despite city council agreeing in principle in 1985 to legislation that would require facilities to fully disclose onsite chemicals, it went nowhere, nor did a 2000 resolution.

The federal, provincial and city governments have taken some steps, but they cover only part of the problem, and much of the data they collect are either kept hidden from the public or very difficult to get at.

As a result, fewer than 300 Toronto emitters – including eight from Maclure's neighbourhood – are on NPRI.

The government claims that, despite its limitations, NPRI has cut emissions by 27 per cent since it was established in 1993. The more extensive U.S. system claims a 41 per cent reduction.

 But the sampling covers just 38 chemicals, and results appear only through drawn-out freedom-of-information requests.

Last summer, the city's medical officer of health, Dr. David McKeown, concluded: "There is still important information ... relevant to (Toronto) residents ... that is neither collected nor made readily available."

Experience shows that most polluters won't clean up voluntarily, and that the glare of publicity will persuade them to act, says Lina Cino of the Toronto Environmental Alliance.

"When we go to a restaurant we have a system where, if the restaurant has failed an inspection, there's a yellow label. We should also have those warnings in neighbourhoods." 

By: Peter Gorrie, Environment Columnist