More toxic chemicals are pumped into the skies over the London region than anywhere else in Ontario, a just-released report by environmental groups warns.
At more than eight million kilograms of toxins a year, not counting what blows in from the industrial U.S. midwest, the air discharge is 40% higher than the pollutants released above Canada’s largest metropolis, the Toronto area, which ranks second in Ontario.
More than 6% of the pollutants released are suspected of causing cancer, while more than 9% are linked to reproductive and developmental defects. Examples of chemicals released include benzene and arsenic.
The Canadian Environmental Law Association and Environmental Defence say dirty air needs to be considered in rules to protect Ontario’s drinking water.
“It’s good to see a group focusing on drinking water. There are stacks that pump chemicals into the air, but we have to make that connection and make policies that speak about source water,” said Elaine MacDonald, a senior scientist with Ecojustice, a non-profit organization for the protection of the environment.
MacDonald has done several studies about pollution in the Great Lakes, Sarnia’s Chemical Valley and Southwestern Ontario.
“The findings aren’t a surprise, but it sends a strong message that although most of our pollution goes into the air, it does end up in the water,” she said.
Using reports submitted to the federal government in 2007, the two environmental groups mapped the release of toxic chemicals and pollution that cause acid rain and smog.
The London region, which includes the watersheds of the Thames and Sydenham rivers, had the second-highest levels of acid rain and smog pollutants released in Ontario.
Although people often think of water pollution as coming from pipes and farm runoff, the Great Lakes — the main source of drinking water for most Ontarians — absorb a lot of air pollution because of their size.
“This is unique to large bodies of water, and it’s something we have to be aware of,” MacDonald said.
“Of course, many of those big industrial plants are on the shores of large bodies of water, like the Great Lakes, because they need the cooling of the water. They’re pumping chemicals out directly over the lakes.”
For those who live near the petro-chemical industries concentrated in Sarnia’s Chemical Valley, like the Aamjiwnaang First Nation, the links between pollution in the air and in the water are nothing new — they live it every day.
“There’s nothing surprising in this, but we need environmentalists and lawyers to talk about it so people listen,” said Ada Lockridge, a band member at the forefront of testing everything from air and water to vegetables that grow in the shadow of big industry on the Sarnia-area reserve.
The Aamjiwnaang people have noticed differences in boy-to-girl birth ratios and many diseases — including cancers, miscarriages and chronic headaches — for years.
“We’re testing all over. There are so many problems, like the diseases and the birth ratio, and we just don’t know what is causing it all — whether it was a specific event, whether it’s where we play, what we drink, or what we breath.
“All of this needs to be looked at,” said Lockridge.
Ontario is now in the process of developing ways to protect well water supplies against pollution, but hasn’t factored in the air pollution, the report said.
Fe de Leon, a researcher with the Canadian Environmental Law Association, said the data submitted to the federal government only captures the larger pollution releases. The actual amount of toxic chemicals released is likely higher, she said.
“We know that air deposition ends up back in the sediment and the water and is recirculated in the environment. There is long-term impact,” she said.
Besides homegrown pollution pumped into the air above Southwestern Ontario, the region — it has some of Canada’s filthiest air — also picks up pollution blown in from the U.S. industrial midwest, including emissions from industry and coal-fired power plants.
Action needs to be taken to protect sources of drinking water, MacDonald said.
“We can filter it, but we might not be able to take all those chemicals out. The best thing to do is to preserve our drinking water, to protect it from being polluted and to prevent pollution from going into our lakes in the first place.
“The Great Lakes are the main source of drinking water for a lot of people.”