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Local air pollution from small sources like autobody shops and corner laundries cause the deaths of at least 120 city residents each year, according to the Toronto Star  citing a Toronto Public Health study called ChemTRAC.

ChemTRAC is a program implemented by the City of Toronto under its Environmental Reporting, Disclosure and Innovation Program, which includes the Environmental Reporting and Disclosure Bylaw (Municipal Code Chapter 423). It has three elements: (1) it requires businesses to report on their use and release of 25 priority substances if they meet certain thresholds; (2) the analysis and release of that chemical data to the public (see the ChemTRAC interactive map with neighbourhood data); and (3) supports for businesses to reduce their use and release of priority substances. The substances tracked include solvents, metals and combustion by-products that can cause short and long-term health effects.

The program has been phased in over three years. The 2014 ChemTRAC report is the first report to include information from facilities in all industrial and commercial sectors subject to the bylaw, including businesses like funeral parlors, medical laboratories and dry cleaning shops. The program captures data from these smaller businesses that are not subject to federal or provincial reporting obligations.

In 2013, 745 facilities reported their chemical releases for the prior business year. In total, approximately 71,000 tones of priority substances were reported as used in 2012. Of this, about 10% or 8,000 tonnes were released to the environment. The substances released in largest quantities were smog-forming pollutants like volatile organic compounds, nitrogen oxides and fine particulate matter, but five other compounds were also identified as having potential health impacts even though they were released in smaller amounts: polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), cadmium, tetrachloroethylene (or perc), mercury and lead.

Toronto Public Health has estimated that the pollutants emitted within Toronto’s borders in 2013 contributed to 670 deaths and 1,970 hospitalizations, with local industries contributing to 18% of those deaths and 10% of the hospitalizations.

How does Toronto Public Health know that the local release of these chemicals contributed to 120 deaths?

The answer to that is not clear, but we intend to take a closer look. The toxicology of air pollution has been evolving steadily over time. An excellent overview can be found in a paper recently published by researchers from the United States Environmental Protection Agency in the Oxford journal Toxicological Sciences. The beginning of society’s collective knowledge on this topic goes back to our understanding that the “smoky fires of early cave and hut dwellers” impacted our ability to breath. During the industrial revolution, hospitalizations and deaths increased during times of great smog. Today, the World Health Organization estimates that air pollution kills about 7 million people a year and is linked to 1 in 8 deaths worldwide.

Air pollution is usually not identified as the sole cause of a death or a sickness, but rather as a contribution to an illness in an individual already at risk due to, for example, a heart condition or some other ailment. The illnesses identified are usually heart or respiratory related.

There is no data currently available to say that air pollution has caused a particular cancer. The logical extension of this is that an individual considering a legal action due to a concern about her local dry cleaner causing her an illness has a real uphill battle. At best, such cases require air sampling and computerized airflow modeling to prove that contaminants were released from a local business at above allowable levels such that an individual was exposed on such a sufficient or frequent basis that an illness was more likely than not caused by that exposure. This is nearly impossible to prove for most chemicals and extremely expensive, and even then may not be enough to prove causation of the relevant illness.

Toronto Public Health is doing a great service by tracking this pollution data at the local level. Residents may want to take a look at TPH’s map to get an idea of what is going on in their neighbourhoods. Businesses should take advantage of TPH’s guidance for pollution prevention.

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