Workers in Windsor’s Industry and Policy Implications

Windsor and surrounding portions of Essex County comprise a major manufacturing center where automotive plants and related operations predominate. Workers in these facilities are especially vulnerable to toxic exposures, with correspondingly increased risk for cancers and other illnesses. For an overview on these issues, with a focus conditions for women working with plastics in these facilities and a discussion of policy implications, see this article: Not a Flower Shop

In more recent developments: Dr. James Brophy, Dr. Margaret Keith, and colleagues have completed a comprehensive study, many years in the making, on the risk of breast cancer in various occupations — both industrial and agricultural. The location for the study was Windsor and Essex County; here is a link to an article in which they describe their findings and the implications of these findings: http://www.ehjournal.net/content/11/1/87. As one result of this work, Drs. Brophy and Keith were selected as the recipients of the Scientific Research Award given by the Occupational Health Section of the American Public Health Association. The award was accepted by Drs. Brophy & Keith at the annual meeting of the APHA, held in Boston, Nov. 2-6, 2013: http://blogs.windsorstar.com/2013/10/17/brophy-keith-to-receive-scientific-research-award/ .

Windsor Citizen Concerns and Government:

While Windsor residents continue to struggle with issues of environmental pollution and resulting health problems, these are, unfortunately, not their only concern.  For example, with unemployment at 10.9 percent, Windsor residents are uneasy about their job opportunities. A  current report from Statistics Canada states that of all the cities within Ontario, Windsor is the one with the highest level of unemployment. Regional government has a role in mediating those job related fears, but several events in the past months have made some within the Windsor community view their governmental bodies critically.

Taken from TalkWindsor Forum, February 10th, 2012

Throughout March 2012, budget cuts were being hotly discussed within Windsor. The Provincial Budget, proposed by the Liberal Party of the Ontario’s Provincial Parliament, was passed on April 24th 2012. It will mean several key changes for the Windsor community. 1 The Budget Plan, meant to cut back on Federal deficit, alarmed some in that it did not take into account high unemployment rates. The budget plan may improve governmental spending, but cuts of any kind have worried those within Windsor. In fact the budget proposed pay freezes and cuts within the public sector on a provincial level–  most notably doctors and hospital executives and teachers in colleges and schools. Windsor’s current Mayor, Eddie Francis, was positive that most public sector jobs would be safe but voiced concerns about the closing of several slot machines and racetracks proposed in the budget.

There has been a steady stream of layoffs from last year (2011) to now.  Three major Windsor employers have laid off workers within the last few months: Chrysler and Caesar’s Casino in October 2011, Windsor’s  Ojibway Salt Mine in February, and Canadian Border Services in April of 2012. It is anticipated that Windsor Raceway Slots will close as of next year- April 2013. (2, 3, 4, 5, 6) These represent several key aspects of Windsor’s economy: tourism, manufacturing and processing centers, and car and engine assembly.

The climate coming from a lack of jobs has caused some distrust of regional government. This year a number of “closed door meetings” took place, meaning that Windsor governmental officials will not allow their meetings to be recorded. Concerns regarding the mysterious and sudden firing of Todd Langlois, the city’s auditor general, have motivated an increased interest in what the government is doing and why it is being so secretive. (2)

Trans-boundary Environmental Regulations:

Windsor lies south of Detroit and at a major border crossing point between Canada and the U.S.; therefore, residents must contend not only with pollution from Detroit industry hubs, but also with pollution – mainly in the form of diesel exhaust – that results from traffic lining up to cross the bridge into the U.S.

The International Joint Commission is responsible for part of these Canadian- American border politics.  An intergovernmental board comprising members from both the United States and Canada, the IJC is responsible for “monitoring” air and water pollution within the Great Lakes region. They provide information and conduct studies for the public, using a self-described “ecosystems” approach concerned with the larger environmental concerns of the Great Lakes such as:  invasive species, runoff, and the algae blooms resulting from an over-abundance of phosphorous.  Studies focus much less (if at all) on human health and industrial emissions, emphasizing instead what might be done to prevent events from happening using: adaptive management tactics, assessment programs, and research. (2011-2013 Priority Progress Plan)

Canadian Federal Law and Windsor Regional Controls:

Within Canada, there are few federal law controls over air pollution or soil contamination. Provincial governments, like Ontario, issue permits and punish pollutors on a case-by-case basis. Federal controls are more connected to waterway controls, but several acts have been a benefit to communities. (3)

Under the Canadian Environmental Protections Act’s Provisions, citizens are guaranteed several rights. According to Theresa McClenaghan of the Canadian Environmental Law Association, Environment Canada and Health Canada, along with their provincial affiliates, must provide research and provide information through an Environmental Registry where events – proposals that may affect the environment – are sent and made viewable by the public. The Environmental Bill of Rights controls this source and is an effort to promote further citizen engagement. (3) Citizens can probe those entities for information about harmful substances, as well. Furthermore, under the jurisdiction of the Auditor General, one can find petitions to specific governmental agencies, and  citizens have the power to request recorded information from any governmental agency under several “information access” laws (4)

Federal Fisheries Act and Ontario Water Resources Commission Acts:

The Federal Fisheries Act is most well known for subsection 36(3) prohibiting any substance that “would degrade or alter the quality of water so that it is rendered deleterious to fish or fish habitat or to the use of fish by people.” Alongside that act is the Ontario Water Resources Commission Act, established in 1956, which in Section 30(1) states that no polluting material may be put near or in waterways within Ontario these seek to protect waterway pollution; this is where most environmental regulations come into play. (10)

What does the Ontario Government believe to be classified as “polluting material”?

To the average citizen, this information is less than readily available. In different circumstances it seems that regulations differ and shift to meet industry standards, while (supposedly) balancing the standards of health for citizens.

In Ontario’s 2010 “Wastewater Systems Effluent Regulations,” biochemical oxygen demanding matter, suspended solids, total residual chlorine, and unionized ammonia were all classified as harmful- but only over a certain level. The proposed amounts allowable are compiled based on the averages that are currently put into water, thus ensuring that as long as these guidelines remain in place,  most industries and governmental entities will still be able to perform business as usual. (6) This is especially relevant to Windsor, as EcoJustice reported in 2009 that the City of Windsor dumped 4.3 billion litres of sewage and storm water into the Detroit River from 2006 to 2007. According to EcoJustice, this is more than many other Great Lakes communities. (7)

Environment Canada is instrumental in deciding what chemicals may be dangerous or harmful enough to classify. The National Pollutant Release Inventory (NPRI) details 300 substances that must be reported to Environment Canada and the industries themselves must report what type of releases have  occurred and when. Nationally, it is detailed that 85,000 companies report; and yet, there are many more companies who do not report to the NPRI. (11)

According to another Federal Act, entacted in 1999, the Canadian Environmental Protection Act will only classify a substance “toxic” after it undergoes “rigorious scientific assessment” and conforms with the description of the Canadian Environmental Protection Act’s definition of toxicity. (4)

Environment Canada has historically acknowledged the limitations of these definitions, partly because there are many chemicals and chemical combinations whose effects on humans are unknown. One attempt is a 2006 initiative “Chemical Management Plan” which seeks to research and classify both new and old substances and gauge their effects in water and foods. Currently many of these programs are ongoing and will take several years to fully complete, implement and gauge. In addition, implementing new controls will take even longer as laws and regulations are a slow process.

Windsor, Community Health, and Joe Comartin:

Joe Comartin represents Windsor-St. Clair within Parliament, and is currently (as of April 2012) within his second term as representative. In 2003, he petitioned both Health Canada and Environment Canada to respond to an article written by Michael Gilbertson and James Brophy titled “Community Health Profile of Windsor: Anatomy of a Great Lakes Area of Concern,” asking those departments: “How many studies have been conducted on environmental health and air quality in the Windsor region, what the results of those studies are, and whether those studies also found a link between air quality, pollution and increased mortality rates?”

The responses  given by both Health Canada and Environment Canada highlight some striking issues with environmental law and practice within Windsor and Ontario as a whole.

Environment Canada acknowledged many of the concerns raised, stating that air pollution and the toxic substances mentioned within the “Community Health Profile” were “currently being measured.” Yet, according to ambient air quality monitors set up by the City, the “concentrations of pollutants” found in Windsor could be comparable to any other urban city. Furthermore, while Environment Canada agreed that there could be a connection between air pollutants and increased cancer risk, it also stated that a causal study on the effects of air quality had not been conducted, so aspects like “lifestyle factors” should be examined as well.

Health Canada responded similarly, stating that air quality and health effects from exposure to air quality were within the range of other urban areas. “Hosptial and mortality studies related to air pollution which explicitly include Windsor in their analysis have found that relative risks fall well within the range found in Canada.” At the same time, they do acknowledge the extent to which air pollution can be very harmful to individuals and affect reproductive health and even lung cancer.

Each of these responses highlights the strengths and weaknesses of environmental policy within Ontario and Windsor: there are many beneficial controls in place, but it they are most likely not enough to provide adequate protection to Windsor’s citizens. (9)

Here are several environmental law action groups and resources regarding health and policy:

Resource Kit- Windsor Ontario– Created For “Environmental Health, Equity and Law: Making the Links” Project

Citizen’s Environment Alliance

Canadian Environmental Law Association

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