A new analysis shows pollution from over 40 highly toxic chemicals has increased significantly in Ontario, Alberta and Quebec in recent decades, exposing millions of Canadians to potentially harmful groundwater and air pollution.
Conducted by the Canadian Environmental Law Association (CELA), the review focused on state emissions data in the National Pollutant Release Inventory of a group of cancer-causing chemicals, including asbestos, arsenic, dioxins and benzene, between 2006 and 2018. The toxins are typically produced as waste from mining operations , factories and other industrial processes before being released into the environment in concentrations permitted by Canadian environmental laws.
While air emissions of these chemicals have decreased, particularly in Ontario, the researchers found that land-based pollution caused by dumping waste into waterways or landfills has increased across the three provinces. In Quebec, landside pollution rose a whopping 587 percent, while Ontario and Alberta only about doubled their pollution.
While some of these increases can be attributed to new industrial activity, CELA warned that the data suggests polluters are simply replacing waste disposal techniques that rely on emissions from the air with newer approaches that release pollution into waterways and landfills.
Per capita pollution of land from these chemicals in Ontario was about 1,000 times higher than pollution from the US state of New Jersey, which has a similar economic and manufacturing profile. Air pollution in the Canadian province was more than 28 times higher than in the US province.
Alberta’s air emissions also rose by about a sixth, in contrast to the other two provinces, both of which saw declines.
“These (chemicals) are the worst of the worst,” said Joe Castrilli, CELA’s legal counsel. But despite the chemicals’ well-known risks, they have been released into the environment on a larger scale in recent years – a failure, he explained, of Canada’s top environmental law, the Canadian Environmental Protection Act (CEPA). The legislation is currently being updated for the first time in over 20 years.
Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC) says the proposed changes will address Canadians’ “key concerns and expectations” about toxic pollution and will provide the Department with “tools to deal with a wide range of environmental and health risks.” . The proposed rules will require the government to compile a list of potentially harmful chemicals to assess their adverse effects before releasing them into the environment.
They are also replacing existing regulations that allow the government to ban chemicals with new regulations that focus on prohibiting environmentally harmful practices. It’s a worrying change for Castrilli. The government has largely avoided banning chemicals in the past, instead focusing on reducing their harmful effects — an approach that allows polluting industries to continue umpteen during the 13-year period CELA reviewed releasing millions of kilograms of harmful waste into the environment.
“We have to look at this in the context of the bigger picture,” said Meinhard Doelle, a professor of environmental and marine law at Dalhousie University. “Emissions are still huge… and if the goal (of CEPA) is to reduce and eliminate emissions of toxic substances into a fragile environment, that’s a miserable failure.”
Emissions of over 40 highly toxic chemicals in Ontario, Alberta and Quebec have increased significantly in recent decades, potentially exposing millions of Canadians to harmful groundwater and air pollution, a new analysis shows.
Chemical production has grown 50-fold since the 1950s. If nothing is done to curb production, by 2050 the world’s chemical load is projected to be three times what it is today, according to CELA.
Earlier this year, an international team of researchers warned chemical companies that they have been producing more quantities and types of chemicals than the planet can safely handle. The team urged countries to curb both production and development of new chemicals to prevent irreversible harm to humans, animals and the environment.
“There’s no way we can pinpoint a planetary boundary for every (chemical),” said co-author Miriam Diamond, a professor at the University of Toronto. Instead, the researchers examined the pace of invention and production of new chemicals and assessed whether Canada and other countries are developing environmental regulations fast enough to prevent pollution.
“The answer is a clear no. We are so far behind in our ability to judge and understand these entities. We can’t keep up.”
However, those warnings are not reflected in the government’s proposed updates to CEPA, Castrilli said.
The new legislation – Bill S-5 – does not propose stricter rules to ban harmful chemicals and replace them with safer alternatives. It will not force companies to create a pollution prevention plan or test whether the chemical waste they produce is toxic. Pesticides – a key category of toxic chemicals – are also not covered, although the EU has pledged to halve the use of pesticides by 2030 for environmental and health reasons.
While Canadians’ right to a healthy environment is enshrined, the new law doesn’t give people an easy way to sue polluters or the government to ensure that this right is actually protected. The ECCC confirmed that the law requires the Minister for the Environment to consider the cumulative effects of chemicals and their impact on vulnerable people.
But without a clear path to justice for people affected by pollution — disproportionately women and children, low-income Canadians, and Black and Indigenous people — these regulations could have little impact when it comes to protecting people from toxic chemicals, said Doelle.
“One reason polluters get away with polluting is because those most directly affected are the least powerful in society, at least in terms of political influence,” Doelle said. “As a result, we have less effective measures to control and prevent pollution.”