Part two of a four-part series on health and the environment.
Asthma is such a common thing in this city, it’s pathetic. We live in a cloud, but what are we going to do about it?” Len Sowinski, 42, an iron worker with the Local 700 swigs from a cold bottle of beer, cooling off from an August evening at Fat Moe’s, a Sarnia watering hole. Sharing a drink on the patio, this is where many workers come to speak about the uglier aspects of life under the smokestacks. A cover band breaks out Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi,” a few people joining in: “They paved paradise, put up a parkin’ lot...” The song is apt—Lambton County is home to Canada’s largest concentration of petrochemical factories. Industry is the lifeblood of the city’s economy, but also responsible for the smog and foul smells that fill the air.
“I’m probably going to die of lung cancer too, like a lot of workers here, but I’ve got kids—where else can I make 30 bucks an hour?” asks Sowinski.
“Asthma runs rampant here, and everybody gets lung cancer,” says a 32-year-old Suncor employee who withholds his name. He takes a haul off his inhaler (which he has been using since he was seven). “That’s why they pay us so much to work in the factories—not because of our expertise, but because we’re going to die young,” he says. Speaking for the factories, Scott Munro, executive director for the Sarnia Lambton
Environmental Association (an industry group representing 19 local facilities), points out that the levels of most airborne pollutants have decreased considerably since the 1970s, adding that “there is no evidence that people here are exposed to levels [of airborne pollutants] that are higher than the levels set by the provincial government considered to be safe.”
But the average person in Sarnia isn’t so confident that the air they breathe is safe— after all, Sarnia is home to three of the top ten emitters of respiratory toxicants in Ontario: the Lambton Generating Station, a coal fired plant (number 3), Imperial Oil’s Sarnia Refinery Plant (5), and Shell Canada Product’s Sarnia Manufacturing Centre (10).
A telephone survey of 383 residents in February and March 2000 by the County of Lambton Community Health Services Department found that two thirds of respondents were concerned about the effects of air pollution on their health, almost half believed they or somebody they lived with had experienced a ‘negative health effect’ from the air.
“Honestly, if you go to Barrie for the weekend and come back to Sarnia, you can feel the difference instantly,” says Sowinski.
Smog is made up of a slew of gases, vapors, and particles that can damage the lungs: nitrous oxides (which give smog its brown colour); sulphur oxides (often foul smelling); carbon monoxide (fatal in high doses); a number of hydrocarbon gases (also called volatile organic compounds, or VOCs); and microscopic bits of dust, ash, and metals (collectively called ‘particulate matter’). Since the introduction of the Clean Air Act in 1969, levels of most of these pollutants in Canada’s air have considerably declined; between 1974 and 1992 the average Canada-wide concentration of some of these major pollutants in the air fell between 38 per cent and 61 per cent.
But the downside is that local concentrations of pollutants in Canada’s urban areas are higher than they were in the 1970s due to more cars—this, coupled with hotter summers, are subjecting us to more smog alert days every year.
And industrial emissions, although lower than in the 1970s, haven’t improved much in recent years. Air pollution decreased by a mere two per cent between 1995 and 2003, according to a 2005 analysis carried out by Pollution Watch, a collaborative effort of the
Environmental Defence Canada and the Canadian Environmental Law Association, using data from the federal government’s National Pollutant Release Inventory (NPRI) to which all major industrial facilities in
Canada report the amount of chemicals they release to the air, water, and land.
The average person breathes about 15,000 litres of air per day—so even with low concentrations of pollutants this raises concerns.