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.
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
"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
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
- In the Maritimes, much of the toxic contamination is from burning -- dioxins
from wood stoves and fireplaces, and also from municipal garbage
- 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
"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
But some activists say the story told on the map is still far from all there is to
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
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
"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,
"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
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