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Toronto businesses must reveal toxic release

As published in the Globeandmail: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/servlet/story/RTGAM.20081204.wtoxic04/BNS...

December 4, 2008

Toronto has become the first city in Canada to require businesses to divulge their releases of harmful chemicals, part of a plan to use the power of bad publicity to encourage companies to cut the use of toxic substances.

The disclosure requirement, known as a "right to know" bylaw and approved yesterday, will force businesses - from dry cleaners to funeral homes and auto-body repair shops - to reveal their discharges of 25 hazardous substances.

The details of the releases are to be made available on the Internet, allowing residents to find out what chemicals are being emitted in their neighbourhoods.

The disclosure provisions will be phased in over four years starting in 2010.

Such disclosure rules have been used successfully by U.S. cities and Environment Canada to encourage companies to reduce pollutants voluntarily.

"Programs like this in other jurisdictions have led to significant reductions in emissions, usually in the range of a third to a half over a decade," said David McKeown, Toronto's medical officer of health.

The reason for the drop, Dr. McKeown said, is "partly the public scrutiny." But he also said the requirement to disclose this data may be the first time owners of many smaller companies have had to evaluate the type of chemicals they use, leading some to look for safer alternatives.

As part of the bylaw, the city plans to set up programs to help companies substitute less dangerous chemicals for the ones they're using.

Environmentalists say Toronto's precedent will spread to other municipalities.

"I think it's going to make waves Canada-wide," predicted Sarah Miller, a spokeswoman for the Canadian Environmental Law Association.

The chemicals subject to the reporting rule are mainly air pollutants and include vinyl chloride, perchloroethylene, formaldehyde and lead.

Until now, Environment Canada has operated the country's only right-to-know law. But it was designed to track major industrial facilities that use more than 10,000 kilograms of a hazardous chemical a year.

The levels that require disclosure under Environment Canada's rules are so high that only 350 Toronto companies qualify. The new Toronto bylaw will lead to disclosure by up to 7,000 businesses because the threshold for most of the harmful substances is only 100 kg a year.

Toronto public health officials have estimated Environment Canada's rules did not cover more than 80 per cent of the releases into the environment of pollutants on which they're seeking information.

Bill Davis, executive director of the Toronto Automobile Dealers Association, worries that when Ontario passes disclosure rules, as it has promised to do, companies will become confused dealing with three different sets of rules.

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