Poorest areas also most polluted, report shows; Study finds low-income

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Poorest areas also most polluted, report shows; Study finds low-income
families, already facing low levels of health, are placed at further risk
Moira Welsh
The Toronto Star, Nov. 27, 2008
Many of Toronto’s poorest residents live near industries that spew the
highest levels of toxic chemicals and pollutants into the air, a
groundbreaking report has found.
Low-income families, many already facing diminished health from stress, bad
nutrition, diabetes and poor dental care, are placed at further risk because
they breathe air contaminated with pollutants suspected of causing cancer
and reproductive disorders, say the authors of the report.
The study, a two-year research project by Toronto-based PollutionWatch, is
one of the most comprehensive examinations ever of an issue that has largely
gone unnoticed in Canada.
Released to the Star this week, it compares federal data on low-income
households and industrial air releases to examine how pollution and poverty
intersect in the Great Lakes Basin, home to more than 9 million. Children
and the elderly are particularly vulnerable to the potpourri of pollutants
released – within the legally allowed limits – in urban areas.
In Toronto, the study found high pollutants in 17 neighbourhoods, from South
Riverdale, to West Hill in the east, to York University Heights in the north
and Alderwood in the southwest.
In Ontario, where air pollution contributes to almost 9,500 premature deaths
each year, the findings will provide a blueprint for change, helping
governments shape policies for fighting poverty, planning land use and
curbing pollution.
“There is no excuse any more,” said co-author Jennifer Foulds. “Pollution
reduction has been on the agenda for a long time now … Now is the time to
cut back on the releases of cancer-causing substances and reduce pollution.
It is time to make a difference.”
Paul Hachey, 52, lives on long-term disability in a rent-geared-to-income
apartment near Dundas St. E. and Greenwood Ave. in South Riverdale, a
neighbourhood highlighted in the study. He understands poverty, but wants to
know more about the air he’s breathing.
“It concerns me,” Hachey said yesterday. “People are aware of pollution – we
talk about it, but most of us can’t just move away. We have financial
reasons for living here in the first place.”
PollutionWatch is a partnership between two watchdog groups, Environmental
Defence and the Canadian Environmental Law Association.
Its website offers information on toxic pollutants (such as mercury, lead,
dioxins and furans) and air contaminants (pollutants that cause smog and
acid rain). Toxic pollutants are linked to cancers and reproductive
diseases. Air contaminants are associated with asthma and other respiratory
Foulds teamed up with Fe de Leon, a researcher with the Canadian
Environmental Law Association, to produce the report. De Leon said the
conclusions could give the federal and provincial governments a new focus
and increase demand for tougher regulations on pollutants.
“It is about action, about accountability. The people who are vulnerable to
those impacts may not be at the table talking to decision makers,” De Leon
That point strikes a chord with community health workers and poverty
John Stapleton, a social policy expert, says the report gives a voice to the
poor. “It is not surprising that it is going on in these communities,”
Stapleton said.
“These are communities that don’t have the strength, both the political and
social strength” to keep polluting industries out of their neighbourhoods.
Paul Young, an environmental health promoter at the South Riverdale
Community Health Centre, deals with many asthmatic children. He said the
report will be helpful to clients who have repeatedly asked for details on
pollution in their neighbourhood, a mix of high- and low-income residents.
“What I have heard is frustration from people not knowing, and the
frustration of not being able to do anything about it. There is a
powerlessness about it,” he said.
“It is time that somebody made these connections,” said Lynne Raskin, the
centre’s executive director. “Poor people are subjected to all kinds of
health disparities, and this is one of them.”
The study uses data on 2005 air emissions from roughly 9,000 companies that
reported to the National Pollutant Release Inventory, a federal database
that tracks industry releases into air, water and land. The inventory
requires disclosure on 367 substances used by companies that have the
equivalent of 10 or more full-time employees.
The database doesn’t give a full picture, however, because small companies
are not required to report their emissions. (Toronto’s proposed “community
right to know” bylaw, if it passes next month, will require an inventory of
all chemicals released by smaller businesses as well.)
In the United States, extensive studies have focused on the link between
pollution, poverty and health. The Environmental Protection Agency’s Toxics
Release Inventory documents nearly twice as many chemicals as Canada’s
The report found a high correlation of pollution and poverty in
neighbourhoods extending from Trois-Rivieres to Hamilton, as well as in
Windsor and Sault Ste. Marie.
While not all low-income communities had high emissions, the study exposed a
definite trend toward poverty and pollution going hand-in-hand. Compared to
other cities in the Great Lakes Basin, Toronto ranked highest for its
combination of high poverty levels with toxic air releases in 2005, followed
by Hamilton a nd Windsor.
When researchers combined the figures for toxic pollutants with air
contaminants (particulates that cause respiratory problems), Hamilton ranked
first and Toronto dropped to 11th place.
Foulds and De Leon hope the report, to be released publicly today, will
force Ottawa to take harder action on chemical management and push the
province forward on its toxics reduction strategy.
“We need prevention,” said De Leon. “When you talk about children’s exposure
to chemicals, the reality is you need to prevent the pollution in the first
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