TORONTO — Too many pill-popping, tech-using Canadians are polluting the environment without realizing it and the problem is expected to worsen as the population ages and electronic gadgets become even more popular, says a new Statistics Canada study released Thursday.
While Canadians have overwhelmingly learned that they shouldn’t pour paint down the drain or throw it in the trash, six out of 10 said they tossed their batteries in the garbage and almost four in 10 said they got rid of leftover or expired pharmaceuticals by flushing them or burying them, according to the results of a 2005 survey.
Many Canadians don’t realize it, but improper disposal of toxic household waste leads to environmental and health risks, said the report’s author John Marshall.
Flushed pharmaceuticals can contaminate the water supply and the drug industry is booming, with sales of prescription and non-prescription drugs having almost doubled to $21.8 billion a year between 1998 and 2006.
And batteries can contain dangerous substances like mercury, cadmium and lead. Canadians buy hundreds of millions of them each year, with only a small percentage getting safely recycled.
Some people know better but are too lazy to do their part to protect the environment, said Aaron Freeman, policy director for Environmental Defence. But those people need to consider the health implications of not making a special trip to dispose of their waste, he said.
“These aren’t substances people would put near their food or in their water but they’re doing that indirectly by putting it into our environment,” Freeman said.
More governments should consider an idea being raised in Toronto, where batteries could be sold with a deposit fee to encourage proper disposal, he added.
“You have to make it easy for people to recycle and you have to make it difficult for them not to, so that goes beyond education,” he said.
“Because a lot of these items are small, people think that it’s not a big deal but they’re highly, highly toxic.”
The rates of safe disposal varied greatly from province to province. While about two-thirds of Quebec and Prince Edward Island households sought out disposal centres for their pharmaceutical waste, just over 40 per cent of people in Ontario did so. In British Columbia, Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Newfoundland and Labrador, less than one-third of households properly disposed of the waste.
More than half of the households in Prince Edward Island returned their batteries to a special depot instead of throwing them out, but no more than a third did so in the rest of the country, and less than 10 per cent did so in Newfoundland and Labrador.
The biggest bright spot in the report was awareness that paint needs to be disposed of safely, and only four per cent of surveyed homeowners said they either poured paint down the drain or left paint cans at the curb.
Canadians also seemed to think they shouldn’t throw out old computer equipment, and almost half of those surveyed said they either donated it or took it to a drop-off centre when they wanted it out of the house.
Thirty-five per cent left the old hardware to gather dust somewhere in their home, while 16 per cent threw it in the garbage.
Freeman said any future surveys need to focus on compact fluorescent light bulbs because the public needs to know that they too need to be disposed of properly. Statistics Canada says the use of the energy-saving light bulbs in homes has gone from 19 per cent in 1994 to 56 per cent in 2006.
While Freeman called the amount of mercury in each bulb “very trace,” he said it’s important that people realize the products shouldn’t go in a trash bag, where they could break and leak out the toxic substance.
“There is a mercury problem and it highlights the need for take-back legislation, so everywhere that sells these bulbs should be required to take them back,” he said.
“When you make it easy for people they do do the right thing.”