The hard won struggle for Community right-to-know: Toronto’s story

by Sarah Miller

For forty years CEHE partner organization the Canadian Environmental Law Association (CELA) has worked to “protect human health and our environment by seeking justice for those harmed by pollution and by working to change policies to prevent such problems in the first place” (www.cela.ca).  Here Sarah Miller follows the thirty year process that led to a legal breakthrough in the field of environmental health in Toronto.

Campaign veterans for environmental toxic use reduction, occupational exposure and cancer prevention see community right to know (CRTK) as their most important tool. Toronto’s coveted Environmental Reporting and Disclosure Bylaw was a very long time coming and began as far back as 1985. www.toronto.ca/legdocs/municode/1184_423.pdf

Whereas most other Health Departments in Canada are funded and focused regionally rather than in one municipality, the City of Toronto is unique and advantaged in having its Public Health Department nested directly within the City governance structure, where it can guide healthy city policies and integrate these into actions. In 1985 Medical Officer of Health Dr. Sandy MacPherson issued a discussion paper titled “The Right to Know: a Bylaw for the City of Toronto”. He called for a bylaw similar to those established in the US in cities such as New York City that had led to improved knowledge of toxic use within municipal boundaries. For example in New York firefighters can call up data on toxics that are likely to be used in facilities they are called to in emergencies.

Since control of toxics in Canada is a shared federal and provincial responsibility, Ontario responded in 1987 that this proposed bylaw would be redundant because changes to the provincial Occupational Health and Safety Act which established the Workplace Hazardous Materials Information System (WHMIS) were adequate to provide this knowledge.  In practice however this did not prove to be an easily accessible route for the general public to know more about toxic use in their communities. This jurisdictional impasse lasted for almost a decade.

Then in March 1995 Ontario Minister of Health Ruth Grier established the Ontario Taskforce on the Primary Prevention of Cancer and its recommendations provided a platform for a new approach and dialogue on the elimination of toxics as a cancer and chronic disease prevention mechanism. In 1999 Ruth, then retired, joined other Toronto public health, occupational and environmental activists to establish the Toronto Cancer Prevention Coalition (TCPC)www.toronto.ca/health/tcpc/

TCPC formed several working groups on key exposures that contributed to cancers in Toronto. Two of the initial working groups merged to become the Environmental and Occupational (E & O) Carcinogens Working Group and their first campaign was to again take up the call for a CRTK bylaw.

This call was reinforced in the 2002 report “Ten Key Carcinogens in Toronto Workplaces and Environment: Assessing the Potential for Exposure”.  Here Medical Officer of Health Dr. Sheela Basur recommended a study of pathways and exposures in order to determine the origins of pollutants in Toronto’s air.  This report again established that the Medical Officers of Health, those ultimately held responsible for protecting public health by the Province, also had the need to know more.

The E & O Volunteer Carcinogens Working Group focused their campaign for CRTK with the slogan “Cancer does not need to happen” and, building the case for the right to know more at the neighbourhood level, worked with the South Riverdale Community Health Centre in studying how little information the community had on their exposures to toxics and chronically poor air quality. The Toronto Environmental Alliance’s “Secrecy is Toxic” grassroots campaign www.torontoenvironment.org/campaigns/toxics/crtk/secrecyistoxic and the Canadian Environmental Law Association’s report on “Creating Community Right-to Know Opportunities in the City of Toronto” all contributed to the growing momentum.

At last in December 2008, 23 years after its inception, the Environmental Reporting and Disclosure bylaw was passed by City Council and ChemTRAC, the data collection system for toxic use in Toronto was established www.toronto.ca/health/chemtrac/index.htm.

For the first time in Canada small and medium sized facilities were included in obligations to report their toxic use. Toronto’s ChemTRAC office was organized to inform and enable facilities to participate and consider ways of reducing use…

The E&O Working Group obtained a ChemTRAC Grant to work with Toronto neighbourhoods in South Riverdale/Beaches and in the Jane and Finch area on using the bylaw to protect their health. As a result of this work CELA has prepared a toolkit on key components of right-to-know entitled “Toronto Toxic Reduction Toolkit” which can be found along with other resources at this link: www.cela.ca/collections/justice/chemtrac-using-torontos-right-know-bylaw.

This toolkit also has valuable information for residents in other jurisdictions who are seeking their own bylaws.

With more right-to-know knowledge comes power but will it be enough? We are on the threshold of a door which could lead to safer alternatives to the toxic substance use that is profligate in our consumer society, but the choice will ultimately fall to governments at all jurisdictions and across Ministries which regulate these substances in workplaces, the environment and communities. Public pressure will need to continue to come from strong, diverse and persistent coalitions calling for actions for change based on our new understanding of community and occupational exposures to toxics and their health effects. As the results of ChemTRAC’s second and third year reporting in 2013 and 2014 accumulates, it will be revealing to see if the use of toxics falls in Toronto. New revelations about exposures have added new concerns outside the bylaw. Toronto’s first cumulative air study in South Riverdale shows traffic intersections as the areas where harmful exposures are the greatest. Another campaign ascends out of the smog.

Sarah Miller has recently retired after 35 years with CELA and remains the Co-Chair of the Environmental and Occupational Working Group of the Toronto Cancer Prevention Coalition.

CELA has published this feature in tandem at: www.cela.ca/blog

https://cehe.ca/chemtrac

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