Citizens Group Scores Success
in Anti–lead Battle
Niagara Street curves through a seven–block stretch near the core
of Toronto. It is the heart of Niagara Neighbourhood and the nearest
residential street to Toronto Refiners and Smelters (TRS), a recycler
of lead from used batteries.
For many years, especially in the 1960s and 1970s, lead emissions
from the smelter caused elevated levels of lead in soil, dust, vegetation
and people In the surrounding area. In 1970, when the relationship
between the smelter’s activities and illnesses in the area became
clear, extensive citizen actions triggered seven years of controversy
that gradually resulted in a better, though still imperfect situation.
For a few years, there was a period of relative calm.
In the summer of 1984, one of the doctors at the Niagara Neighbourhood
Community Health Centre, whose curiosity had been aroused by the
fact that there had been no testing of lead levels in blood for
some time, arranged for a student medical researcher to summarize
recent data on lead levels in the neighbourhood. The data revealed
that excessive lead emissions were again occurring, and a blood
testing program was scheduled. These events shattered the complacency
of the neighbourhood, and a small group of concerned citizens embarked
on a journey that would eventually carry them into commercial publishing
and national politics.
The first step on their journey was the formation of a Lead Committee
by the Niagara Neighbourhood Residents’ Association. The members
of this committee realized that they needed professional help to
guide them through the maze of technical terms and mass of scientific
data that had been accumulating world–wide on the health effects
of low–level lead exposure. They obtained funds from Canada Works
to hire two researchers. The results of this research moved them
from outrage to activism.
Emotional outbursts at early committee meetings – “We and our
children are at great risk – somebody must do something now!”
– were gradually replaced by information–sharing, educational sessions
and plans for actions. Familiarity with industrial control measures,
lead exposure and health risks in a contemporary urban environment
led them to formulate multi–level strategies:
• For personal health protection, they worked successfully
to get full community participation in the 1985 summer blood testing
• To improve the quality of life in the community, they investigated
what could be accomplished by dealing directly with the owners and
managers of TRS. A liaison committee of residents, government, and
industry was set up. They also met with other citizen groups in
the area to discuss lead risks and strategies;
• For inter–community support, they shared experiences, tactics
and positions with South Riverdale, a community on the other side
of the downtown Toronto core that was similarly affected by lead;
• To influence political action, they submitted a position
paper to the federally commissioned study by the Royal Society of
Canada on Lead In the Environment. The Commission later asked them
to submit a more detailed paper, which they did. They also became
involved, along with South Riverdale and a number of national organizations
concerned about children’s health, in a coalition working with the
federal Ministry of the Environment on removing lead from all gasoline
as quickly as possible and with the Ontario Ministry of the Environment
on equalizing at–pump prices for leaded and lead–free gasoline.
• In order to share their awareness of lead health problems
with other concerned people they obtained funding to allow their
researchers to write The Citizen’s Guide to Lead: Uncovering
a Hidden Health Hazard (see review in this issue of Infoetox).
This tumult of activity took place over a brief eighteen–month period
in 1985 and 1986. And their story is not finished. They have now
obtained the help of the Canadian Environmental Law Association
to sue TRS for excessive lead emissions under the Ontario Environmental
Protection Act. In addition, because the City of Toronto is investigating
expropriation of the TRS property to make a new expressway connection,
the citizens have become involved in site decommissioning plans.
The Niagara Neighbourhood Association has come a long way in its
fight against lead pollution. In 1985, they had to hold a yard sale
just to help pay minimal office expenses. By 1986, they had brought
suit against the smelter, published a book to help others avoid
lead risks, had moved Ontario’s Minister of the Environment to state
at their book–launching party that he supported a more stringent
guideline for removing lead–contaminated soil and for equalizing
the price of leaded and unleaded gasoline and had influenced the
federal government to pass regulations to remove lead from all gasoline.
Through self–education, out–reach, and activism, the Niagara Neighbourhood
Lead Committee has successfully worked to reduce lead risks in their
neighbourhood and throughout Canada.
Reprinted from Infoetox, Friends of the Earth, Ottawa.
Published in the Connexions Digest, Volume 11, Number 1, Spring