Exposure to toxic chemicals in Canada disproportionately imposed on communities of colour

‘There is no quick fix for undoing environmental racism’
Aamjiwnaang First Nation residents have higher-than-average pollutants exposure because of Chemical Valley.
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Canadians are regularly exposed to harmful chemicals where they live and work. However, not everyone is faced with the same risk — some individuals and communities are forced to live with far more pollution and toxic chemicals than others.

We need to look no further than the community of Aamjiwnaang First Nation's exposure to the toxic air, described as smelling like “rotting eggs, gasoline, and melting asphalt,” in Sarnia's Chemical Valley to see how Canada's regulatory approach to toxic chemicals has failed to address these longstanding environmental injustices. 

About 40 per cent of Canada’s petrochemical industry, producing pesticides, fertilizers, cosmetics, and other products, is located in this 15-square-mile area. Toxic chemicals such as benzene — associated with acute myeloid leukemia — are regularly released into the local environment. Chemical Valley is a hotspot for this type of cancer.

More than 60 chemical plants and oil refineries operate there 24/7. Sarnia's air was actually called the most polluted in Canada by the World Health Organization in 2011. Children born in the area are more likely to develop asthma than those born in nearby cities.

For years, members of the Aamjiwnaang First Nation have sounded the alarm about pollution in the area and the higher levels of disease among its members.

Chemical Valley, near Sarnia Ontario, is among Canada’s most notorious examples of environmental racism.
Pulitzercenter via Al Jazeera

This is just one example of the unequal burden that some individuals and communities across Canada face from the dangers posed by pollution and toxic chemicals.

The current regulatory approach to managing the risks leaves many people unprotected because it treats everyone the same despite these variabilities, leaving out the most vulnerable populations and creating vast inequity.

Social, economic, and physical conditions in which people live can increase the risk of toxic chemical exposure, impacting their health. Differences, such as age, sex or pre-existing health conditions put some people at a greater risk of experiencing adverse health impacts.

A person's exposure to a number of toxic chemicals and pollution in their environment can cause a cumulative effect — a detrimental health impact from exposure to more than one chemical at one time.

The fact that Black, Indigenous, and people of colour are more likely to live close to polluting industries or waste sites, where they may already be exposed to high amounts of multiple pollutants, is not factored into how the government regulates a chemical.

Canada's laws have failed to keep pace with regulating the ever-growing number of chemicals in commerce. There has been a 50-fold increase in the production of chemicals since 1950 — and this is expected to triple by 2050.

The opportunity to address longstanding environmental injustices by modernizing Canada's legal framework for addressing pollution is within reach.

There is no quick fix for undoing environmental racism. However, new requirements to consider cumulative effects and impacts on vulnerable populations offer pathways to increasing protection from toxic chemicals and pollution.

The Canadian Environmental Protection Act (CEPA) is Canada's cornerstone environmental law, responsible for regulating dangerous substances and toxic chemicals. This law has not been reformed in more than two decades. This has put the health and well-being of people in Canada, especially racialized communities and those vulnerable to chemical exposure, at increased risk.

Bill S-5, tabled before the Senate in early 2022, seeks to update CEPA for the first time in 23 years, and is currently making its way through the final stages of the parliamentary process.

While the legislation is not perfect, and has received criticism for only tackling some parts of the outdated law, it is still a moment for cautious optimism, not least because these reforms set out the groundwork to address environmental inequities in Canada.

Toxic pollution and exposure to dangerous chemicals impact people across Canada, but Black, Indigenous, and people of colour and those with a lower income often suffer the worst effects of that toxic legacy.

There is no quick fix for undoing environmental racism. However, new requirements to consider cumulative effects and impacts on vulnerable populations offer pathways to increasing protection from toxic chemicals and pollution.

The legislation recognizes every person in Canada's right to a healthy environment, and environmental justice is a component of that right. Recognizing this right further strengthens CEPA as a legislative tool to address the environmental inequities often disproportionately imposed on Black, Indigenous, and people of colour across Canada.

But while this right should inform decisions made by the federal government to regulate toxic substances and pollution under CEPA, the bill doesn't provide people with a mechanism to enforce the right when it is violated.

It now falls on the federal government to seize this momentum and maximize the impact of a strengthened CEPA to address the growing impacts of toxic chemicals and pollution. It must realize the potential of the new provisions that Bill S-5 will introduce, beginning with a new two-year planning process enabled by the bill.

The ball is now in political leaders' court to make sure that people in Canada are protected from toxic chemicals. The federal government has been notoriously slow in addressing the risk of toxic substances. It is not uncommon for a delay of a decade or longer to elapse before the government decides to regulate substances after they have been found to be a risk to public health and the environment.

It is now time for the federal government to deliver protection from pollution and toxic chemicals to everyone in Canada.

Dr. Elaine MacDonald is Ecojustice’s healthy communities program director, and one of Canada’s leading experts on environmental pollution and its impact of people and communities.

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