Are We Losing the Fight Over Pollution?

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posted December 22, 2004

Alarmist headlines are appearing at a fevered pace as a result of a new report called ‘Shattering the Myth of Pollution Progress in Canada,” a joint effort of Environmental Defence Canada and the Canadian Environmental Law Association. One major newspaper reports “Canada is losing the pollution fight.” Another proclaims “GTA pollution rising quickly since ’95.” But there is much less here than meets the eye since the Pollution Progress report focuses on the wrong indicator of progress. While they paint a dismal picture by cobbling together emission figures reported to Canada’s National Pollutant Release Inventory, by their own admission, such data, “do not include information on risks of chemicals released or transferred,” and do not include information on exposures to people or the environment.” And that is precisely the information that matters most.

Let’s start at the beginning. What matters when it comes to pollution? Is it simply the amount of stuff that’s released into the air, water, or soil? Not really. If a company emits non-toxic nitrogen gas into an atmosphere that is already 78 percent nitrogen should anybody care? Certainly not. What matters when it comes to pollution is the risk it poses to people, animals, and plants. In order to assess risk, we need to know the toxicity of a given chemical, its persistence in the environment, the concentration it reaches, the length and type of exposure that organisms receive, and the benefits of the activity leading to the emission, none of which is assessed in the Pollution Progress report. Risk certainly can’t be assessed by simply totting up the self-reported emissions of a selection of industries, without regard to their location, the population around them, and so on.

In their general discussion about the toxicity of the chemicals being emitted, the authors of the Pollution Progress report certainly imply that the emissions they measure pose a risk to human health. Several pages discuss the types of harm that air pollutants can inflict and quote official pronouncements that “smog kills.” Further, we’re informed that “over 96 percent of all air releases were suspected respiratory toxins, enough pollutants to fill railroad cars stretching from Ottawa to Fredericton.” But the devil is in the details, and it’s in the details that the Pollution Progress report falls down. Let’s take a couple of examples.

The Pollution Progress report informs us that 71 percent of all chemicals generated at company sites are discharged into the air. Later in the report, they inform us that about half the total airborne releases are sulphur dioxide, while another quarter of total air releases were carbon monoxide. True, both of these chemicals can indeed be harmful at sufficient concentrations. But according to data from Environment Canada’s National Air Pollution Surveillance Network, the ambient concentration of both of these chemicals has declined over the same period discussed in the Pollution Progress report. According to Environment Canada, sulphur dioxide concentrations in the air dropped 25 percent between 1995 and 2002, while carbon monoxide concentrations declined 19 percent over the same period. All Canadian cities now meet the strictest National Ambient Air Quality Objective for sulphur dioxide, and no monitoring station in all of Canada showed an exceedance of the “acceptable” health standard for carbon monoxide over the same period.

Another problem with the pollution prevention report is that it fails to consider the benefits of the activities leading to emissions. First, let’s talk about benefits. Industrial activity contributes about 30 percent to Canada’s gross domestic product, or about a third of the wealth generated by the entire country in a given year. And that wealth itself increased by about 30 percent from 1995-2002, even after adjusting for inflation. That’s a lot of money flowing into people’s pockets to provide them with better nutrition, better housing, and a generally higher standard of living. And let’s not forget the additional tax revenues that flow into medicare, infrastructure, welfare programs, and so on.

Clearly, the gloomy scenario cranked out in the Pollution Progress report needs to be taken with a large grain of salt. While some emissions may well have increased, by themselves, emissions tell a very small part of a very large story. Really understanding the risks and benefits of industrial activity requires more than just counting emissions, it requires consideration of toxicity, concentration, exposure, vulnerability, and benefits as well.

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