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Our smog is worse than we thought

As published in the Toronto Star: http://www.thestar.com/article/549457

Research behind city's new emission-reporting bylaw finds high levels of suspected carcinogens

Dec 06, 2008 04:30 AM


The 25 chemicals captured in Toronto's new industry disclosure bylaw create a toxic brew of emissions that currently exceed health safety levels, Toronto Public Health says.

Almost all of the chemicals – most of them thought to be carcinogens – show up in Toronto's air above accepted health standards. But some can surpass the best benchmarks by 25 to 30 times, making the simple act of breathing city air a risky proposition.

Those startling conclusions are part of the research that created the foundation for Toronto's sweeping new "community right to know" bylaw, the first of its kind in Canada.

Using federal data from four Environment Canada air-monitoring stations across Toronto, public health researchers compared the figures to health measurement levels adopted in California (a rigorous standard founded on being "protective" of the public's health) and by the Ontario Ministry of Environment.

"Most of us know that Toronto's air is bad to breathe, especially in the summer," said Katrina Miller, spokesperson for the Toronto Environmental Alliance, which spent years lobbying for the new bylaw. "We now know that there are certain cancer-causing chemicals in our air at levels that are absolutely unacceptable."

The bylaw was approved Wednesday in a 33-3 vote. It will require Toronto businesses that aren't already required to report their emissions to Ottawa to disclose chemicals they use. That information will be published online, so residents can learn about pollutants in their neighbourhoods.

The first of three phases will go into effect on Jan. 1, 2010, affecting the food and beverage industries, printing and publishing, chemical makers and wood industries.

Research that went into the community right-to-know bylaw offers just a snapshot of Toronto's overall air quality, because it provides estimates of emissions from Toronto industries alone.

Residents are also affected by pollution from traffic, which can lead to asthma and other respiratory problems. Toronto Public Health estimates air pollution leads to 1,700 premature deaths here each year, and 6,000 hospitalizations.

Monica Campbell, manager of the public health environment protection office, said the city is applying the rigorous California health measurements – defined as the level where increased cancer risk is less than one in a million – in hopes of getting pollution levels down to "an area we know is safe."

"I don't want to create the impression that because these things are in the air that people are seriously or significantly harmed," Campbell said. But, as she pointed out, many toxic chemicals do not need to be released in high volumes to be harmful. As the average exposure levels show, many regularly exceed the safety measurements.

"This means there is chronic exposure and therefore elevated health risks," she said.

"Even twice above a health threshold is certainly not a level you want to be at ... (Outdoor) air is only one portion of the exposures a population gets. They have exposures from indoor air, exposures from consumer products."

The four monitoring stations are at Ruskin Ave., near Dupont St. and Dundas St. W., in the west; at College St. and Spadina Ave. downtown; at Judson St. and Islington Ave. in south Etobicoke; and Dolomite Dr. and Dufferin St. in the northwest.

According to Toronto Public Health, one of the worst offenders is benzene, linked to certain forms of leukemia. Its average exposure ratio in Toronto was 30 times the health benchmark. It is found in motor fuels and is used as a solvent.

Another worrisome chemical is formaldehyde, a carcinogen. Its average emissions exceed health measurements by 27 times.

Peak exposure levels are even higher, though often short-term.

Chromium, forms of which are highly toxic and linked to lung cancer, spiked at 1,150 times higher than the benchmark.

In 2009, TEA's Miller will begin a public awareness program, connecting industries with their neighbours to promote the use of healthier substances and better ways of disposing of chemicals.

By 2013, when all of the city's industries will be reporting, a better picture of Toronto's air quality will emerge, she said.

For details on all 25 substances on the "right to know" list, their effects on health and how they enter the air, visit healthzone.ca/health/article/548463.

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