A new study that ranks Sarnia as Canada’s #1 “hotspot” for air pollution should be a wake-up call to residents, industry and government, says Jim Brophy.
“This is a scary thing for the community to deal with. Nobody wants to be listed as having the worst air quality in the country,” said the health researcher and former executive director of the Point Edward-based Occupational Health Clinic for Ontario Workers.
“You can try to use denial as a defense, or you can say, ‘OK, we’ve got to do something about this; there’s no reason for our community to be putting that kind of pollution into the air.”
The World Health Organization released an unprecedented compilation of air quality data this week, covering nearly 1,100 cities in 91 countries, tracking levels of particulate matter, which can enter the bloodstream causing cardiovascular and lung disease, cancer, and asthma.
While Canada ranks third in the world when it comes to air quality, Sarnia was ranked the worst city in the country, with the most particulate matter per cubic metre of air.
The data looked at two different sizes of particles — PM2.5, or those that have a diameter of less than 2.5 microns, and PM10, those particles 10 micrometres large.
Sarnia documented 12.7 micrograms of PM2.5 particles per cubic metre of air, on par with population-dense New York, while Montreal (11.2 PM2.5), Windsor (10.1) and Toronto (7.9) trailed the small, industry-rich city.
The WHO estimates more than two million people die each year from breathing in tiny particles in air pollution.
While Brophy also acknowledged the air pollution coming into southwestern Ontario from the U.S., Sarnia’s heavy emissions and long-standing history of occupational disease can’t be ignored, he said.
“The thing I’m concerned about, and have been for years, is that this particulate matter actually binds to a whole host of chemicals that are also being emitted from [Chemical Valley],” said Brophy, pointing to known human carcinogens like benzene, butadiene and formaldehyde. “These chemicals are being released at hundreds of tonnes a year, into this air shed.”
He pointed to a 2007 Ecojustice Canada report in which 62 large industrial facilities located within 25 km of Sarnia emitted more than 131,000 tonnes of air pollution in 2005, a toxic load of more than 1,800 kilograms per resident.
The report, “Exposing Canada’s Chemical Valley,” analyzed data collected under Canada’s National Pollutant Release Inventory (NPRI) and the U.S. Toxic Release Inventory, calling for increased enforcement of existing laws and enactment of tougher regulations.
“I have tremendous frustration that this has gone on and on,” said Brophy. “To my knowledge, very little has been done to remediate this situation. And so you have the Aamjiwaang community; you have people living downwind from these refineries, you have the industrial workers in these plants getting these daily exposures, and the consequences of it are pretty serious.
“There’s no way of getting around it — we have to face these things,” he continued. “We can’t just turn our heads, or turn it into a public relations deal. The air quality in Sarnia has to be addressed in a very serious way.”