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Meeting the toxic neighbours - The Globe and Mail

June 09, 2007
Anthony Reinhart
Globe and Mail

A 'right-to-know' bylaw could tell residents which local industries are using harmful chemicals

Like any mature Toronto neighborhood, the west-end Junction comes with an array of aromas, organic and otherwise.

Rita Bijons, a retired kindergarten teacher, has lived in the area long enough - 11 years now - to know it is home not only to homes, but to shops, eateries and industries big and small.

But that did not temper her sense of alarm when the sickly smell of solvent accosted her on a walk to the corner store late last month, and again the next day, when she went to mail a letter.

"I couldn't pinpoint where it was coming from, but for the whole length of the block, I could smell it," Ms. Bijons says, adding that the shopkeeper and another customer smelled it, too. "My desire was to get out of it and just get home."

When she did, she called the Toronto Environmental Alliance, a 5,000-member advocacy group with an
annual budget of about $500,000, most of it solicited through private donations. She spoke with Lina Cino, co-ordinator of the advocacy group's "toxics campaign."

TEA, as it is known, has just launched a citywide project whereby residents are encouraged to photograph places in their neighborhood that they are concerned about when it comes to toxic chemicals - photo labs, for instance, or dry cleaners.
Once TEA receives the photos and related concerns, it will solicit responses from the identified businesses, and post all of the information on a clickable online map for residents to browse, Ms. Cino says.

The program is part of an ongoing push by local environmentalists to get city council to pass a bylaw ordering all businesses to disclose their use, storage and release of toxic chemicals.

Such "right-to-know" legislation, already in force in several American jurisdictions but nowhere to be found in Canada, would allow people like Ms. Bijons to look up neighborhood industries and find out just what they're doing.

As it stands now, she can only follow her nose and guess.

Maybe it's the factory-sized uniform service at Dundas and Runnymede. Or the printing shop around the corner. Or the big auto collision repair place across the street.

Jim Barratt, who runs Reg T. Brown Printing, is pretty sure it's not him.

"The printing industry, years ago, was disgusting," says Mr. Barratt, whose shop dates back to 1951. But for years now, it has operated under tighter government regulations, as well as an industry plan to replace chemicals with less-harmful ones as they become available.

He says he would welcome a public disclosure bylaw. "I have no problem if they want to get something like that going in this area. It would stop some of the other people who don't care."

Vince Martino, co-owner of Martino Bros. Auto & Truck Collision & Refinishing, had a similar response.

"We're a collision repair business and we paint for a living, so we do have paints here," Mr. Martino says of his family's business, which is one year older than Mr. Barratt's print shop.

"There's no problem at all," with TEA's push for a right-to-know bylaw, he says. "We have nothing to hide," and besides, "the government's all over us all the time, so we're well protected" with safe handling and disposal methods, he adds.

It's precisely that kind of information that TEA, Ms. Bijons and others say should be out there for all to see. That way, emitters might redouble efforts to improve their handling of chemicals and reduce noxious odors, they say.

"The community does want this," Ms. Cino says. "People out there are concerned but we don't have this information, and we want this information as soon as possible."

The idea of a right-to-know bylaw for Toronto was first floated in 1985, but shelved when the provincial Occupational Health and Safety Act improved the level of disclosure of hazardous materials in workplaces.

The idea of a bylaw surfaced again in 2000, when a city-commissioned environmental plan recommended one, but council did not proceed.

More recently, Toronto Public Health commissioned a report, now a year old, that assessed availability of environmental information and found "that both health and the environment can be better protected by collecting more information and making it more easily available."

As it is now, the lack of a bylaw means there are massive gaps in the reporting of toxic chemical use, the
report says. While there are more than 71,000 businesses in Toronto, an estimated 9,600 of which might be using or releasing these substances, fewer than 300 of them - the largest users - are required to report their activities to the National Pollutant Release Inventory.

Other laws require some reporting, but the information is often limited and not readily available to all residents.

The sooner city council accepts the report and drafts a bylaw, the better, Ms. Cino says.

"We think of ourselves as more environmentally progressive than they are," she says, referring to the Americans, but "we're behind, and we're falling behind, because right-to-know laws continue to get enacted across the States and we haven't even gotten our first one."

Until that happens, Ms. Bijons will keep following her nose, and might even pick up a camera to help with TEA's new program to document residents' concerns.

"I think that it behooves every industry and every little company in the city to be neighborly," Ms. Bijons says, seated in her home on St. Johns Road, a short walk from the Runnymede-Dundas corner.

"If I can't do anything about the smog that's coming from the Ohio Valley, at least I can ask questions in my own neighborhood.

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