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Mapping Canada's toxic hotspots
Fair Use Statement

Source: Ottawa Citizen Online

The World Wildlife Fund has charted locations of long-lasting chemicals all over the country. Tom Spears reports.

Tom Spears
The Ottawa Citizen

The newest map of Canada won't show up soon in any tourism offices. Not with its tainted harbours, leaky toxic waste dumps and chemical-laden polar bears.

Published by the World Wildlife Fund, it's the work of Craig Boljkovac, who grew up in Hamilton with too close a view of a couple of steel mills.

"I always knew I'd do something like this some day," said Mr. Boljkovac, now the WWF's campaigner on "persistent organic pollutants," or POPs for short.

Those are the chemicals that, like DDT and PCBs, build up in the tissue of animals and plants over a long time, and break down in the environment only with great difficulty.

The POPs map puts together data from a vast number of monitoring efforts across Canada.

It shows sources of persistent pollutants, areas where they have ended up (often far from their sources), and wildlife whose bodies carry large amounts of DDT, toxaphene and other chemicals.

And it's particularly stark in its view of the Arctic.

Thirty-one years after Canada banned the insecticide DDT, 23 after we banned the machine oils called PCBs, these substances continue to drift generally north. They build up in the fat of polar bears, seals and beluga whales even as they slowly disintegrate in southern Canada.

For this reason, the map's publication is supported by two northern groups -- the Inuit Tapirisat of Canada, and the Inuit Circumpolar Conference. Both groups recently took part in an international conference in Bonn to reduce global use of persistent pollutants.

"We wanted all this information in one place, at one time. So I've spent the last two months of my life putting it all together," Mr. Boljkovac said.

"It sort of tells a story."

Here are some of the story's excerpts:

- Accidents at the Swan Hills Treatment Centre, a toxic waste facility in northern Alberta, contaminated local wildlife. Native people in the area had to curtail their hunting.

- On Baffin Island, a study in the mid-1980s showed high levels of POPs in human blood, mothers' milk and the meat from animals killed by local hunters. Snowpacks across the Arctic and tissue samples from Arctic humans and wildlife have revealed a pattern of high pollution levels since then.

- In the Maritimes, much of the toxic contamination is from burning -- dioxins from wood stoves and fireplaces, and also from municipal garbage incinerators.

- There are also success stories on the map -- such as a graph tracing the stunning advances a British Columbia pulp mill made in eliminating dioxin from the waste water it flushes into the Columbia River.

That improvement is typical of Canada's pulp and paper industry, the World Wildlife Fund says.

"The dioxin levels downstream from most of the pulp mills are down unbelievably, something like 99 per cent," Mr. Boljkovac said.

"Now the paper from those mills is sought after in Europe."

The change shows that regulations work "utterly and completely," while voluntary measures wouldn't have achieved the same goals, he says.

DDT, the first common chemical to be widely recognized as a long-lasting pollutant since the environmental classic Silent Spring, was banned in Canada in 1969. The United States followed in 1972. But we're still dealing with the fallout.

DDT levels are still known to be high around Point Pelee, Canada's most southern mainland, jutting southward into Lake Erie toward Pelee Island. Pelee is where migratory songbirds cross Lake Erie every May in the millions, taking advantage of the point and the island to get across the water safely.

"It's still there in high levels. The half-life of DDT in this climate is around 18 or 20 years," Mr. Boljkovac says. (A half-life is the length of time it takes for half of a chemical to break down.)

"It demonstrates that even in temperate climates, it takes forever to break down," he said. "It doesn't just stay in the Arctic."

"It's probably indicative of the agricultural practices in those days," he says. "I think it's just that testing has been done there. I expect if you monitored more widely, you would find more high DDT levels."

If that sounds far-fetched, think of Hamilton.

A 1997 fire raged for three days in the factory of a firm called Plastimet, which made PVC (polyvinyl chloride) plastic, widely used in plastic pipes. The fumes were toxic, so the Ontario government sent environmental staff to sample soil in the neighbourhood after the fire.

There was some residue from the burned PVC, but the soil also held significant levels of coal tar, a long-lived pollutant that can cause cancer. It's a byproduct of making flammable gas from coal. (Coal tar in soil on Lees Avenue in Ottawa forced a costly cleanup in the early 1990s. More was discovered contaminating a riverbank in London, Ont., this month.)

"Sometimes you don't know what's there until you look for it," says Tom Adams of Energy Probe, a Toronto environment group.

The back of the map lists types of pollutants, allowable levels under Canadian and U.S. laws, and details of pollution monitoring and measurements.

But some activists say the story told on the map is still far from all there is to tell.

What about 2.5 mercury? asks Elizabeth May, an environmental lawyer and Sierra Club leader teaching this year at Dalhousie University.

"We're the tailpipe" for industry in the northeastern U.S., she says from her office in Halifax.

"Our loons in Kejimkujik National Park (Nova Scotia) have the highest level of mercury ever measured in wildlife."

Mercury, however, is a 2.metal, not an organic pollutant. Only the organic ones are in the WWF's map -- not lead, cadmium, radioactive wastes or many others.

Ms. May also worries about pollutants, mainly pesticides such as 2,4-D and Roundup, with shorter lifetimes than the persistent chemicals like DDT.

Even with the purely organic problems, Mr. Boljkovac adds, "we had to leave a lot out."

"We go back to Brian Emmett's report that toxic waste management in this country is inadequate to protect public health," says Ms. May.

"The government of Canada doesn't even maintain an inventory of toxic waste sites. They started doing it once but the funding was cut, so they never continued.

"So there are POPs that have got themselves embedded into the ecosystem, into all of our bodies. We're all carrying around about 500 chemicals that were unknown in 1920. Over the average person's life, the heaviest exposure is in utero. So we are all walking around as mini toxic dumps ourselves. There's no inventory (of waste sites), no plans for cleanup, nothing.

"Unfortunately you have to let these materials continue to cycle through the air, the water, our bodies, the food chain, until they peter out," Ms. May concludes.

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MapCruzin.com is an independent firm specializing in the publication of educational and research resources. We created the first U.S. based interactive toxic chemical facility maps on the internet in 1996 and we have been online ever since. Learn more about us and view some of our projects and services.

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