A powerful public tool needs work


The idea is splendid: Point your computer mouse at any place on a map of Canada, then click, and . . . Presto! . . . you get a list of who is releasing pollutants in the area you’ve chosen, what pollutants are being released, and where they’re being discharged.

What a powerful tool for the public. Especially if, as I suggested last week, we have made ourselves hostages to progress by trading our health for the benefits of a modern society where pollution has become inevitable. Give people details and they’ll be the agents of change.

Unfortunately, although we have the point-and-click system, it’s cumbersome to use and spotty in performance. It was created by the Pollution Data Branch, of Environment Canada, which collects information on pollutants for the National Pollutant Release Inventory (NPRI).

The good news is that the branch is hard at work on perfecting the point-and-click and is shortly to begin consultations with interested parties on improving its data collection — and its data collection does need improving.


To begin with, the NPRI lists only high-volume pollutants. In other words, it deals only with those that cause damage in high doses. These are the pollutants that fit within the concept of poisons: they become dangerous only when they are emitted above certain concentration or when they accumulate to a certain level. There is no attempt to list low-volume pollutants, such as those organochlorines that disrupt hormone systems.


The hormone disrupters are especially worrying because the damage they do isn’t dependent on the concentration or buildup of a pollutant. All that may be necessary is one small hit. Hormones are the body’s messengers. What disrupters do is mimic them, and if a mimic takes the place of a real hormone, it can scramble the message. Scientists are coming to suspect that the consequences can be breast cancer, testicular cancer, reduced sperm counts, and genital deformation in newborns.


There are 51 synthetic chemicals that are known to disrupt and most of them are organochlorines. Some of them, for instance those from the PCB family, are already banned, so the number to be included on the NPRI list is not great.


The list contains only 176 chemicals, and the main there are so few is that those listed elsewhere are not included. Consequently, the NPRI does not list ozone depleting substances, pesticides, global warming agents, the precursors to acid rain, and chemicals that produce smog.


It would be a great help if they were included in NPRI’s point-and-click system.


There are two other basic improvements I can suggest. One is to require anyone storing or releasing pollutants to file an emergency response plan with the NPRI so that the public can see what precautions are being taken against a disaster.


The other is to require reporting of what chemical pollutants are brought on site or manufactured, and what happens to them. For instance, are they consumed in a  process, or incorporated into a product and shipped off-site?


Over time, this would give the NPRI a true measure of pollution prevention because it would measure reductions upstream instead of just downstream. The most effective prevention cuts back at the source instead of treating effluent as it comes out of the pipe.


This isn’t a suggestion that sits well with manufacturers, however. They are concerned that upstream reporting might violate business confidentiality, and in certain cases that may be a legitimate concern. But can it outweigh the right of people to information that can seriously impact on their health? I think not.


The NPRI was created in 1992 and its first report came out the following year. It’s an enormously valuable initiative and I can think of few better environmental programs for the Government of Canada to fund.


Marielle Nobert, a senior officer with NPRI says that there have been 15,000 « visits’’ to the website. Most, she says, have been by academics. Once the website gets easier to use, I imagine the visits will snowball.


The website address for the NPRI home page, where the point-and-click option can be found, is http:www.ec.gc.ca/pdb/npri.html

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