Toxins & Waste: Canadian Case Studies

Air Pollution

Despite our reputation for having pristine lakes, rivers, and air quality, in fact, Canada lacks any binding national standards to protect the quality of the air we breathe. For example, in comparison with the United States, we do not have anything similar to the American Clean Air Act which mandates plans to achieve and maintain air quality standards across the country and which includes requirements for industry to use the best-available technology to minimize emissions, while also containing specific provisions to deal with toxic air pollutants that pose health risks to residents.[1]

Unfortunately, neither the Environmental Protection and Enhancement Act nor the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, 1999 include such requirements nor do they establish a national air quality standard. However, facilities that impact air quality, such as through air emissions, are often required to follow an Air Monitoring Directive. This Directive facilitates the meeting of ambient air quality objectives for substances such as sulphur dioxide and hydrogen sulphide, among others.[2] The government looks to these objectives when designing other requirements for facilities designed to help maintain ambient air quality.[3]

On a global scale air pollution is a significant issue. One study recently published in the science journal Nature found that more than 3 million people/year are killed prematurely by outdoor air pollution with this number expected to double by 2050.[4] An even more recent study out of the United Kingdom echoed these ideas when it found that, globally, 2 billion children were exposed to air pollution rates that were significantly above the World Health Organization guidelines and that these high rates of air pollution may be linked to a higher risk of low birth weight and lifelong health problems.[5]

While Canada is viewed as having clean air, there are various places in the nation that contend with smog and the related health impacts.

One place where the effects of air pollution are causing significant health and environmental effects are the communities surrounding Sarnia, in southern Ontario, which have infamously become known as Chemical Valley. Let’s take a deeper look at what is going on there…

Chemical Valley, Ontario

Chemical Valley is an area in Southern Ontario located just outside of Sarnia near the American border. The area is home to about 40% of Canada’s entire chemical industry, making it one of the most polluted areas in the country.[6] The people living in the Sarnia area are surrounded by more than 60 large industrial facilities and air pollution comes not only from Canadian companies but also travels across the border from the United States.

In 2012, Ecojustice, a Canadian Environmental legal organization, brought a motion for judicial review (after the approval for increased refinery operations at a Syncrude plant was made by the Director) on behalf of Ron Plain and Ada Lockridge, two members of the Aamjiwnaang First Nation whose community is located in one of the most polluted areas of the notorious Chemical Valley.[7] They argued that the staggering amount of air pollution from industrial facilities in the area, including the increase in air pollution that would come from the Syncrude facility, was causing serious health problems in their community and they asked for an update to the Ontario legislation in order to prevent future pollution ‘hot spots’.[8] They do so by arguing that the decision to approve further air emissions infringes their section 7 and section 15 Charter rights. (Click here to read their full application)[9]

One of the reasons why Chemical Valley is so polluted is because the legislation in Ontario that governs air pollution does not require a study of the cumulative (or combined) effects of emissions coming from multiple polluters.[10] Rather, each new development or emissions permit is treated as though it is the first or only one in the area.

This is an issue because Sarnia is an oversaturated airshed, which means it is receiving air pollutants from many sources and should not be compared to a pristine airshed (or one without any other emissions) when deciding whether to grant a new approval or permit. This legislative system has meant that, traditionally, permits were awarded without considering emissions from other facilities.[11]

Finally, in April 2018, Ontario approved an air quality policy that focused more on the cumulative effects of air pollution. This policy applies to benzene and benzo[a]pyrene in Hamilton and Burlington and benzene in Sarnia/Corunna and applies to all applications submitted after October 1, 2018.[12] The policy states that approvals for a new development, or emitter, must take into consideration the current air quality in a geographic area, rather than solely relying on an individual facility’s emissions (as though they were being emitted into a pristine airshed).[13]

This new approach is set to begin in the areas of Sarnia and Hamilton/Burlington where air pollution is considered to be at the worst levels in the province. In their announcement of this plan, the Ontario government directly cited the work done by Ron Plain and Ada Lockridge, finally recognizing the significant air pollution and health problems faced by the Aamjiwnaang community.[14]

Although this policy recognizes the need to understand and examine cumulative effects, it is still only a policy and does not have the enforceability of a law or regulation.

What are some of the ways we can prevent another Chemical Valley?[15]
  • Legislate the precautionary principle;
An explanation of this principle can be found in our Fundamentals of Law section here.
  • Ensure that there is full compliance with current regulations;
  • Consider the cumulative effects of all emitters in the area and consider the current air quality of an airshed (water quality or soil quality would also apply) when approving new projects;
  • Study and monitor ongoing health effects; and
  • Increase air quality standards and make them more transparent to the public.
Can you think of any other ways we can make sure that we don’t repeat the same mistakes that led to the toxic air in the Chemical Valley?
For another viewpoint on the issues facing the Aamjiwnaang and Chemical Valley, check out our section on Environmental Justice here. This section takes a closer look at how and why some of these toxic sites end up where they do.

Water Pollution

If you have already read our water section, you will know that a World Wildlife Fund Canada study determined that only 3 out of 25 watersheds across Canada are considered to be in good health.[16] This report also found that pollution is one of the most significant threats to Canada’s freshwater, with most watersheds studied scoring ‘high’ or ‘very high’ in a pollution risk assessment. Their work characterizes risks in relation to freshwater and ranks the North Saskatchewan River Basin as a high risk and the South Saskatchewan River Basin as very high.[17]

If you want to read more about freshwater in Canada, check out our section on water here.

Unfortunately, pollution is not specific to freshwater and is also a major problem facing our oceans – a topic we will be diving into next.

Microbeads in Marine Environments

To understand some of the legal problems facing the regulation of pollution in the ocean, let’s focus on one type of pollution – a physical rather than chemical toxin called microbeads. Microbeads are a type of microplastic, very tiny pieces of manufactured polyethylene plastic that are added as exfoliants to health and beauty products, such as some cleansers and toothpaste.[18] The problems begin when microbeads are flushed down the tap and eventually end up in the aquatic food chain. To fish and other small aquatic organisms, such as plankton, microbeads look a lot like food. Not only does this mean that microbeads move their way up the food chain when plankton or small fish are ingested by larger fish, but researchers have also found that the smallest organisms are eating microbeads after mistaking them for real food and consequently starving to death, due to a false sense of fullness.[19]

After discovering this problem, a number of large cosmetic and beauty product manufacturers promised to institute a voluntary ban on microbeads in their products including Unilever, L’Oréal, Procter & Gamble, Johnson & Johnson and Colgate-Palmolive.[20]

Voluntary action by companies is an important step and consumer choices can also significantly limit the sale of products containing microbeads, but what are some of the legal options available to limit this dangerous marine pollution?

In June 2017, the Government of Canada took action, passing the Microbeads in Toiletries Regulation, which is designed to prohibit the manufacture, import and sale of toiletries, non-prescription drugs, and natural health products that contain plastic microbeads. All provisions were in place by July 1, 2019.[21] Microbeads have also been added to Schedule 1 of the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, which means that they are now considered to be a toxic substance.[22]

Canada is not the only country with a ban on microbeads. Countries including New Zealand and the United Kingdom are also joining forces to prohibit the manufacture and sale of these products.[23] Unsurprisingly, global cooperation is necessary for this to truly have an effect because no matter how hard humans may try to create aquatic borders, ocean waters and the animals that live there pay little attention to these human-drawn distinctions.

Microbeads are a serious form of pollution currently facing our oceans and these legislative attempts are important, however, these are not the only type of plastic clogging our waters. Limiting single-use plastics such as plastic bags and straws is also crucial for the future protection of our oceans and for the health of all those animals living there.

What are some of the things you are doing to cut down on your plastic use?

<< Alberta’s Environmental Protection and Enhancement Act

Section Review >>

[1] Kaitlyn Mitchell, “Pollution, human health, and the right to breathe clean air” (22 March 2017) Ecojustice online:

[2] Alberta Environment and Parks, “Alberta Ambient Air Quality Objectives and Guidelines Summary”(January 2019) online:

[3] Alberta Environment and Parks, “Alberta Ambient Air Quality Objectives and Guidelines Summary” (January 2019) at 1-2 online:

[4] J. Lelieveld, et al., “The contribution of outdoor air pollution sources to premature mortality on a global scale.” Nature 525, 367–371 (2015) online:; Damian Carrington, “More people die from air pollution than Malaria and HIV/Aids, new study shows” (16 September 2015) The Guardian online:

[5] Rachel B Smith et al, “Impact of London’s road traffic air and noise pollution on birth weight: retrospective population based cohort study” (2017) 359:5299 BMJ at 1 online:; Damian Carrington, “Air pollution harm to unborn babies may be global health catastrophe, warn doctors” (5 December 2017) The Guardian online:

[6] Elaine MacDonald & Sarah Rang, “Exposing Canada’s Chemical Valley – An Investigation of Cumulative Air Pollution Emissions in the Sarnia, Ontario Area” (October 2007) EcoJustice at 5 online:

[7] Elaine MacDonald & Sarah Rang, “Exposing Canada’s Chemical Valley – An Investigation of Cumulative Air Pollution Emissions in the Sarnia, Ontario Area”.

[8] EcoJustice, Press Release, “Chemical Valley residents demand new law for Ontario’s Pollution Hot Spot” (30 October 2012) online:

[9] Ada Lockridge v Director, Ministry of the Environment, Her Majesty the Queen in right of Ontario, as represented by the Minister of the Environment, The Attorney General of Ontario and Suncor Energy Products Inc, Ontario Superior Court of Justice, Court File No 528/10.

[10] Elaine MacDonald & Sarah Rang, “Exposing Canada’s Chemical Valley – An Investigation of Cumulative Air Pollution Emissions in the Sarnia, Ontario Area”.

[11] Elaine MacDonald & Sarah Rang, “Exposing Canada’s Chemical Valley – An Investigation of Cumulative Air Pollution Emissions in the Sarnia, Ontario Area” at 19.

[12] Environmental Registry of Ontario, “Cumulative effects assessment in air approvals” (26 April 2018) Government of Ontario online:

[13] Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change, “Proposal for Addressing Cumulative Effects in Air Approvals in Ontario – Questions and Answers” (21 November 2017) Standards Development Branch at 1 online:

[14] Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change, “Proposal for Addressing Cumulative Effects in Air Approvals in Ontario – Questions and Answers” at 1 & 7.

[15] Exposing Canada’s Chemical Valley – An Investigation of Cumulative Air Pollution Emissions in the Sarnia, Ontario Area at 26.

[16] WWF Canada, “A national assessment of Canada’s freshwater: Watershed Reports” (2017) online:

[17] WWF Canada, “A national assessment of Canada’s freshwater: Watershed Reports”; WWF Canada “Watershed Reports: North Saskatchewan” online:

[18] National Ocean Service, “What are microplastics?” National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration U.S. Department of Commerce online:

[19] Eleanor Peake, “Fish are sniffing out plastic waste and confusing it for food” (16 August 2017) Wired online:

[20] Gavin Haynes, “Microbeads – tiny objects, massive problem?” (24 August 2016) The Guardian online:

[21] Microbeads in Toiletries Regulations, SOR/2017-111.

[22] Canadian Environmental Protection Act, 1999, SC 1999, c 33, Sched 1.

[23] Ministry for the Environment, “Plastic microbeads ban” Government of New Zealand (7 June 2018) online:; Des Shoe, “The UK Has Banned Microbeads. Why?” (9 January 2018) New York Times online: